Science & Research

Kids Are Learning to Code With a Slice of Raspberry Pi


Raspberry Pi Model B computer

Photographs by Gavin Roberts/PC Plus Magazine via Getty Images

Raspberry Pi Model B computer

Raspberry Pi is a credit card-size computer that can function like a basic PC when plugged into a monitor and keyboard. It can record videos and power drones, but developer Eben Upton says his goal was to teach basic programming skills to students as young as 8.

The small computer, sold by the nonprofit Raspberry Pi Foundation, is a small green board covered in metal ports. It’s light, delicate, and fits in the palm of your hand. Once it’s plugged into a keyboard and monitor, a user can write and tweak code as with any PC. The latest model, B+, has 10 operating systems to choose from, with varying learning curves.

Raspian OS starting up.Raspian OS starting up.

Upton, the founder and chief executive of the 10-employee foundation in Cambridge, England, says he grew convinced that more kids needed introductory programming lessons (or, in some cases, remedial ones) while he was running the computer science department at St. John’s College at Cambridge. While interviewing high school students who had applied to the school, he says, he often found them less prepared in the computer science field than he had expected. “We were finding we had to teach people things we assumed they already knew,” says Upton.

The professor started developing his single-board computer in 2006 and released the first version in 2012 after six years of prototyping. B+, the single-board computer’s third commercial version, went on sale last month for $35. Customers can purchase the device from the Raspberry Pi website or such product sites as Adafruit.

Raspberry Pi’s competitors include the Hummingbird ($45), the BeagleBone Black ($45), or the Via APC ($49), but so far Upton’s coding tutor has the biggest audience and one of the lowest prices. He says that’s thanks in large part to mutual help and brainstorming among Raspberry Pi users. ”If you have a problem, it’s likely someone else has a solution,” said Upton.

Along with boutique uses for industry professionals, the Raspberry Pi Foundation markets its products to hobbyists as well as would-be programmers. The company’s website walks users through the construction of such items as an “Infrared Bird Box” or a “Hamster Party Cam.” Upton estimates that the user base is split about evenly among the three groups—students, pros, and hobbyists.

The next step, the foundation says, is a greater focus on tailoring Raspberry Pi to foreign markets. Between 70 percent and 80 percent of its mini-PCs are already sold outside the U.K., most notably in Taiwan. At the moment, Upton is in Taipei, studying local use of his devices in an effort to increase their popularity there.

Giorgi is a data researcher and visual journalist for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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