Programming Pi

July 8, 2013—A newly released, single-board computer, the Raspberry Pi costs a fraction of the price of an average laptop and helps users learn the basics of hardware, operating systems, and programming.

In an effort to help teachers weave computer science into their curricula, Associate Professor of Computer Science Lisa Singh and Associate Dean Helen Karn will host a workshop about the Raspberry Pi for local teachers from July 10 to 12.

“For basically $100, a kid can very conceivably have his own computer at home for very low cost [with the Raspberry Pi],” Karn said. “And unlike some of the most expensive things that are kind of locked down, you’re only bound by your imagination. Whatever you can think of in terms of programming, you can do with this.”

Able to function on five volts of electricity, or the output of a common cell phone charger, the Raspberry Pi is perfect for use in areas where electricity is unreliable or costly, or where there has been a movement toward solar energy.

“When the original founders developed it, their goal was to make a computer cheap enough that it could be used in developing countries,” Karn explained, “as well as cheap enough that public schools that couldn’t afford to have computers for every student could go to this type of model.”

Funded by the Google CS4HS (Computer Science for High School) program, the three-day seminar will be attended by 10 to 15 middle and high school teachers from the Washington, DC, area, and will be “80 to 90 percent” hands-on, said Singh.

Karn and Singh will help the teachers, many of whom have a background in biology, physics, or a field not directly related to computer science, learn about hardware, operating systems, and computer languages like Scratch and Python. The teachers will also devise lesson plans that incorporate computer science and computational thinking.

“The idea is to [invite] teachers with any science or math background and to teach them some of the basic concepts of computer science, and then focus in on the actual disciplines that they teach,” said Singh.

“We thought if we could convince traditional science and math teachers to add modules related to computer science or computational thinking, then their kids would also get exposed to computer science,” she continued. “[The teachers] get to take the devices and materials home at the end, so they’ll have the opportunity to work on it and extend it beyond what they do with us.”

Karn and Singh are longtime friends and colleagues. In 2003, they met for the first time when Karn enrolled in a computer science course that Singh was teaching her first semester at Georgetown.

Together they decided to host a workshop last fall, when they accidentally ran into each other at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference in Baltimore. Their main goal, said Karn, is to encourage users to be more proactive and innovative with technology.

“The idea is to get everyone, but especially kids, not just sitting passively using applications that somebody else wrote—using Twitter, using a web browser, using email—but saying, ‘I could write the next killer app,’” she explained.

“We’ve gotten away from that. We did that back in the days of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, writing software, but now it’s, ‘Here’s a box, I just turn it on, and I don’t know or understand how it works, I just use it,’” Karn continued. “That limits me by what someone else has said this thing can do.”

Because the Raspberry Pi is low-cost and open-source, Karn and Singh also believe it gives people who have long been overlooked in the world of computing some measure of power and agency.

“Whether it’s computer science, computer engineering, or bioinformatics, there are so many voices that are not being heard, particularly women and minorities. One of the reasons why we tried to focus on recruiting teachers from Washington, DC, is to get these voices heard,” Karn said.

“That really fits with Georgetown’s mission of social justice—of working with people at the margins and being inclusive.”

—Brittany Coombs