It seems that everywhere you look, everyone in education is talking about STEM education. Whether it’s teaching coding to all students or making sure that all schools have access to makerspaces, STEM education is very much the buzzword of the current time. And why shouldn’t it be? There’s a lot to be excited about in terms of STEM education - real world problems, great community inclusion,
However, there are some significant concerns that teachers must face - especially teachers who might be enthusiastic about the idea of STEM education, but perhaps don’t have the experience or the skills or just the knowledge to know what they are doing. STEM education is a dense collection of anagrams and strange-sounding words that might appear impenetrable to a new teacher. Hearing people talk about Sense Hats and Cobblers and Raspberry Pi and Python might sound unusual and perhaps even confronting at first, but fortunately, it is possible to make sense of the field.
This post is meant as a very brief introduction to two of the key components of many maker spaces: the Raspberry Pi and the Arduino. Both of these devices have gained a lot of popularity amongst STEM enthusiasts in recent years, mainly because of their adaptability and affordability, but for teachers who’ve never engaged with them before, it can be confusing to know what they are, how they are different and how they can be used. That’s where this post comes in! It will basically explain the differences between the two, give you some resources to get started, and also provide some guidance if you are looking to go further.
What’s a Raspberry Pi?
The Raspberry Pi is basically a credit-card sized computer. There are a couple of different models, with different capabilities and settings, but they were all designed by the Raspberry Pi Foundation in the UK. The best thing is that they are built specifically for schools to use in teaching basic computer science. Raspberry Pi boards need to be connected to displays, keyboards and mice to be interacted with (although it is also possible to use them remotely).
The Pi isn’t particularly powerful - it’s certainly not going to run the latest games - but that’s not important. It does do a couple of really interesting things. Firstly, it’s a great environment to run software like Scratch to teach students about programming. Secondly, it’s relatively simple to connect the Pi to things like sensors, so that you can gather real time data. For example, you might connect a temperature sensor, or a humidity sensor, or a camera, or any one of a dozen other kinds of things. Students can use basic programming tools to interact with these sensors and process and display the information they find.
What kinds of things can you do with a Pi? Have a look at these projects for some ideas.
What’s an Arduino?
So if the Raspberry Pi is like a really small computer, then what is an Arduino? An Arduino board is really a microcontroller - which means its very different from a computer. For the Raspberry Pi, you can run a proper operating system - normally a derivative of Linux - but a micro-controller like the Arduino does nothing more than the same thing, over and over again. This might sound really limited, but that ignores the real purpose of the Arduino - which is to help students learn about electronics projects. The Arduino is much simpler than the Pi, and that is both a good and a bad thing. If, for example, you wanted to build a really simple circuit, the Arduino makes that very easy. It’s possible to do that on the Pi as well, but that requires a little more organisation and a little more know how.
What kinds of things can I do with an Arduino? Here are some ideas:
How can I get started?
Both devices are designed for students, so that means that there is plenty of information available for interested teachers. A lot of it is of high quality, too. And because it’s built for beginners, it’s really simple and straightforward to start. In fact, I’ve seen fledgeling makerspaces start off with a Raspberry Pi, a monitor, a keyboard and a few LEDs. My advice for teachers coming from a non-technology background is this.
- Start off small, with perhaps only a couple of students involved.
- Keep it really simple, too - don’t try to build a robot if that’s the first think you’ve done (but definitely try to do it after you’ve guild a few other things)!
- Don’t build anything with the students that you’ve not already build yourself.
- And finally, don’t be afraid of making a mistake - that’s a big part of programming.
Where can I find out more?
A good place to start is the offical page for each device.
Raspberry Pi: https://www.raspberrypi.org