Technology Gets The Raspberries

And now for something uplifting about technology: My colleague, the ever patient Ron Callahan, Tech Director at SVA MFA Design/Designer as Author + Entrepreneur, has started his own entrepreneurial venture The Raspberry Heights Workshop, a computer learning opportunity for kids, based on the Raspberry Pi computer.

In just over a year, Callahan’s workshop is a magnet for the kids who will someday rule our digital world. I asked him how this came about.

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What prompted you to start The Raspberry Heights Workshop?

When I first heard about the $35 Raspberry Pi computer, I quickly ordered one to see what all the fuss was about. What came in the mail was a small computer board no larger than a deck of cards. My five-year-old daughter, Olivia, asked to help put it together. She wanted to learn how it worked. As we began to experiment with the tiny Linux based machine, it quickly became “her” computer.

She was so intrigued with the Raspberry Pi, I thought there would be tons of other kids that would like to get involved in learning about computers. The idea for The Raspberry Heights Workshop was born. I spent the summer developing the curriculum for my first group of students. My “Beta Testers” gathered on Sunday mornings in the basement of my home in Jackson Heights, Queens.

When I knew my curriculum was ready, I launched a successful Kickstarter campaign. Before I knew it, my little idea grew out of my basement studio, and we moved the workshop to The Jackson Heights Early Learning Center, a local preschool that let us use their space on the weekends. After the first round of official classes, parents and children were asking to continue, and I developed new curricula to meet the demand.

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How does this computer enable kids to learn?

The Raspberry Pi computer was designed with education in mind. Raspian, the operating system used in the workshop boots to the Linux command line which gets the students used to typing commands to make things happen. Also installed is Scratch, a graphic based programming environment created at MIT. Scratch is a programing environment that uses movable shapes to create scripts and animation. Second level students use Scratch to create their own video game.

One of the things that makes the Raspberry Pi unique is the fact that students can connect electronic sensors, LED and motors. This allows them to be creative in the physical world in addition to their on-screen time. The advanced students will be using what they’ve learned to work on building a Raspberry Pi robot this Fall, something that might be not be economically viable if we were using more expensive computers.

What do the kids take away from the class(es)?

The Raspberry Heights Workshop is focused on having fun. If kids are doing something they enjoy, the learning is an inevitable side effect. The most important take away for the kids is that they get a hands on experience where they actually build a computer and learn to make it do stuff with code. I encourage them to experiment and have fun.

Their experiments fail sometime, and we have to stop and take a look to see why something isn’t working. That’s exactly what we want to happen because that’s where the real learning takes place.

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How are the classes organized? When do they run?

We hold three different level classes Beginners, Intermediate I & Intermediate II. We’re developing an Advanced level class, which will be more of a long-term project workshop involving robots with Raspberry Pi as the brain. Each class is one hour and the sessions run for 4 weeks on Sunday mornings in Jackson Heights. The next sessions begin September 7th.

The challenge is finding the balance for each child. That’s why I limit the class size to six children. My assistant, William Arocho, a freshman engineering student and I can get very focused on helping a student that’s having trouble keeping up due to our 1:3 teacher to student ratio.

Do you have a long term plan?

Over the past year, we were fortunate to build a partnership with the Queens Library to provide The Workshop for under served children and those affected by Hurricane Sandy out in The Rockaways. Programs like this reflect the mission of Raspberry Pi and hope to continue bringing computing and electronics skills to those that might not have otherwise had the chance.

Long term, I’d love to see The Raspberry Heights Workshop develop into a franchise enabling us to teach kids to code in Brooklyn Heights, Washington Heights, Berkeley Heights and beyond.

To register for classes go here. More about Raspberry Pi here.

 

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