Raspberry Pi CEO: ‘Barriers to computer science education are falling’

18 Jan 2017

Philip Colligan, chief executive, Raspberry Pi Foundation. Image: Connor McKenna

As he walked through the various stands at the 2017 BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition, the CEO of Raspberry Pi, Philip Colligan, said he was surprised and more than a little humbled by what he saw.

He was surprised because he said that in the UK, there is nothing like the BT Young Scientist event, which is modelled on US science fairs and has been an institution in Ireland for 53 years.

He said he was humbled because of the sheer number of students who were using Raspberry Pi computers and the Python programming language as the basis for a plethora of different projects.

‘We’ve got to make a bigger investment in upskilling the next generation of teachers so that they can support young people to learn how to create the technology’

“It’s my first time here this year and I’ve just been blown away by the creativity of the young people. It is very gratifying to see them using our technology.

“There are kids here doing remarkable things with Raspberry Pi, real science!”

A slice of Pi

Raspberry Pi is a series of credit card-sized single board computers that were created in the UK by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, and help kids to develop their software and hardware skills.

All of the devices feature the essential processing, memory and communications components. When the foundation was established in 2009, the idea was to help promote the study of basic computer science in schools.

The first two models emerged in 2011 priced at $25 and $35 respectively, making cost less of an argument when it comes to teaching kids the core computing basics.

More than 10m of the devices have been sold so far, making it the UK’s bestselling PC of all time.

In 2015, the foundation revealed the Raspberry Pi Zero, priced at just $5, featuring a 1GHz single core CPU, 512MB of RAM as well as mini HDMI and USB ports.

No excuse not to have computer science on the curriculum

Prior to joining the Raspberry Pi Foundation, Colligan was previously deputy CEO of Nesta, and he was also one of the founders of the Behavioural Insights Team.

Colligan pointed out that what was remarkable about the kids who were using the Raspberry Pi technology to such good effect, was that they all taught themselves.

“They’ve learned how to program their Raspberry Pis and computers in CoderDojos and Raspberry Jams and Code Clubs in their own time.”

He said the fact that Irish schoolkids are excelling at technology in spite of, and not because of, the present education system, the curriculum needs to change.

“In the UK, we’ve made some great progress. We now have computing in the curriculum and every child has the opportunity to learn it and teachers are doing some awesome things.”

But all is not perfect, and he warns that there is a skills gap of around 15,000 teachers when it comes to teaching computer science in the UK.

“We’ve got to make a bigger investment in upskilling the next generation of teachers so that they can support young people to learn how to create the technology.

“You know, in places like Italy, they’ve just put €1.5bn into computer science education and that’s the kind of level of investment we need to be seeing.”

I point out that one of the hurdles in the past was capital outlay for computers, but as demonstrated by the Raspberry Pi Zero, every kid could have a computer for just $5. The capital investment needs to be in the curriculum, infrastructure and teaching skills.

“That’s right. One of our goals is to remove price as a barrier to anyone being able to access high-power computing. That’s not just hardware, but software too. The Raspberry Pi is a fully functional PC – you don’t have to pay for the hardware or the software.

“And you know you can do everything you can do on a PC; send emails, surf the internet – but you can also build amazing things and learn to program. Price is no longer the issue.

“You know, the $5 computer that we launched just over a year ago, Raspberry Pi Zero, really means that the cables are more expensive than the computer now.”

In conclusion, Colligan said that the Raspberry Pi Foundation is making great strides to support computer science curriculum in schools.

So there is really no argument for countries like Ireland to delay on delivering this education to children.

“What we are also trying to do is make the educational materials free and available to everyone. And it’s not just us – movements like CoderDojo that started here in Ireland have been so important in bringing the support and educational content to kids as well.”

That, Colligan said, is something to be proud of.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years