29 Feb 2012

Is the Raspberry Pi this generation's ZX80? 

Listening to the Today Programme this morning it was interesting to hear the article on the launch of the Raspberry Pi, a tiny piece of circuitry aimed at getting people (children mainly) back into programming. How we ever, as a country, managed to loose this skill and interest is quite frankly beyond me.

My computing "career" started as a 14 year old visiting the local girls grammar school once a week with a couple of other "geeks" (a term yet to be coined) to use their teletype and 110 baud acoustic-coupler link to an ICL 1900 mainframe at Kent College. This was followed by writing Mastermind on a programmable calculator and eventually the arrival of my very own Sinclair ZX80 which, to my mothers surprise, arrived in a Jiffy bag! It's still in my loft.

Computers and computing were new, they were exciting and.... well actually they did absolutely nothing. Take a ZX80 out of a bag and plug it in and you have a system that does... well... nothing. Not a thing. You couldn't even buy software to run on it. And that was the key - they were exciting but anything you wanted them to do you did yourself. With each step forward there would be a real sense of achievement. Armed only with the ZX80, a circuit diagram, an ancient black and white TV set, a copy of the Z80 op-codes and time that should have been dedicated to O and A levels I had my very own version of Space Invaders.

My daughter recently went through the process of choosing her 'A' levels. Sixth Form has moved on and there is now a bewildering array of courses on offer and to offer these schools now club together in consortia. As one of the first year at my school to take Computer Science A level (we had no teachers and so the subject was gallantly taken on by the deputy head and a sociology teacher) you may well imagine my surprise to find none of the colleges now offer Computer Science as an A level subject. A surprise it seems that's shared by Google's Eric Schmidt who went so far as being "flabbergasted".  Not one college. Despite one of the colleges being a science and technology specialist!

Where is this rambling going?

Oh yes - the Raspberry Pi. It should come as no surprise in the days of smart phones to find this tiny circuit board hosts a full blown computer. From the Arm processor, 1080p graphics driver, USB ports to the SD-card memory slot everything you'd find on a laptop is here.

The SD card slot provides the primary storage media and this has to hold your operating system plus anything else you want. Given the system has two USB sockets secondary storage could presumably be achieved through a USB hard-disk.

So what can you do with it? There's a nice video from Robert Mullins, co-founder of the Raspberry Pi foundation which demonstrates the system in operation. Basically he boots into a version of Linux (there are several flavours available that will run on the constrained hardware) and from there demonstrates an educational programming language which I presume is analogous to yesteryear's BASIC.

The big question is "will the Raspberry Pi encourage children to take up programming", which is it's primary goal? That's going to depend to a large extent on schools, on teachers driving their pupils enthusiasm. My own interest was sparked by a maths teacher and an after school maths club - not everything has to be part of the appalling National Curriculum and compulsion is general the enemy of enthusiasm!

One thing is certain - for the Raspberry Pi to succeed schools are going to have to encourage projects where there is not currently an off-the-shelf solution - why write Space Invaders when you can buy it for £10?

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