Bless Me, What Do They Teach Them at These Schools?

Bless Me, What Do They Teach Them at These Schools?

Deep down I’m a computer programmer.  Pure and simple.  There’s nothing I like better than fiddling about with constants and variables and loops and if statements and classes and functions and procedures.  Setting my mind to some problem or other and constructing a logical model that is both functional and elegant.  A bit like solving a really tough crossword puzzle but without the newspaper or the grid or the little black squares or the tiny numbers or the clues.  Or the pens.  This, as you will imagine, is primarily a solitary pursuit.  The sort of thing that teenage boys do in their bedrooms or dads do in their sheds.

The fact that I’m doing this while I should really be fixing the wonky door in the kitchen is bye the bye.  Stick with me for a minute.

The solitary pursuit is all very well but I’m also an uber-parent.  And I’m in my fifties and Scottish so quite unfairly burdened with a veritable donkeyload of personal, familial and national under-achievement that stretches back generations.  This means that I enjoy a deep-seated psychological imperative that forces me to try to pass on my years of hard-earned wisdom to a disinterested, yawning next generation in the vain hope that the pattern might break; that my boy might play for Scotland or my girls make some scientific breakthrough that saves mankind.  Except I don’t have a boy.  Only girls.  So, no pressure then ladies.

It’s parents’ night at West Stirlingshire High School.  Off I pop to see a veritable scunner of teachers all desperate to tell me how wonderful my daughter is as long as the conversation is one way, anodyne and short.  Still, if it ticks their mandatory parent engagement box that’s fine by me.

I toddle along with my little set of leather ears and my earnest,  parent face, nodding meaningfully while pedagogic mouths open and close and pedagogic eyes say ‘Thank God this will soon be over.  I can’t wait to break open that whisky’.

She’s doing really well.

It’s all down to the dedication and hard work of the staff.

Blah.

Blah.

Blah.

Then we get to the IT part.  For some reason there’s a break in the dull and relentless, one-way traffic.  An opportunity for me to ask a question.

Me: What about IT?
Teacher:  You mean Word and Excel and stuff?  They start spreadsheets next term.

Never mind.

The Raspberry Pi is a small and cheap computer aimed at kids and hobbyists.   It’s very much in the small boy gadget zone.  It costs about twenty five quid and isn’t much bigger than a credit card.  Although it doesn’t look much like a computer – it’s just a circuit board with some bits and bobs soldered on to it – it packs quite a lot of technology into its tiny frame.  The latest model has a quad-core ARM Cortex A7 processor running at 900MHz and 1Gb of onboard RAM.  OK, so you need to plug in a monitor (or a TV) and a keyboard and a mouse and a power supply and flash a Linux distro – there are various options optimised specifically for the Pi –  onto an SD card to get it up and running but if you don’t have those things lying about in your house then where the hell have you been for the last ten years?  Cowdenbeath?

Now you’re not going to use a Raspberry Pi to replace your Macbook or Lenovo Yoga Pro but it’s a great thing for just mucking about with.  While it does run a reasonably efficient desktop environment with the usual office tools its real value lies elsewhere.

Firstly, it comes packaged with things aimed directly at kids.  I’m not talking games here but a set of environments specifically designed to engage kids in the new digital world.    Programming environments like Python and Scratch.  An API into a modified version of Minecraft that allows kids to write routines that will manipulate the Minecraft world: build houses, turn the ground below them into ice or flowers or program a diamond transporter that will take them to wherever they wish to go in the game.

We had a go.  Loaded up Minecraft and a Python shell and within five minutes had written half a dozen routines to drop from the sky, create some blocks and even build a house.

When we were doing this, we had to use variables and functions.  I was trying to explain the point of this to my daughter.

Daughter:  Aaah! I get it!  We’ve done that kind of thing in algebra.  Used x and y.  So that’s what its for!  You can use x and y or a and b or wall and road or whatever instead of a real number.  That lets you work out how to solve the problem once and then you can put in any number you want without having to do it all over again!  Cool.

The point of algebra explained in five minutes through Minecraft.  Something the school has struggled to do for the last year.

But there’s more.  As Jimmy Cricket would have put it.

The Pi has a set of GPIO pins that allow all sorts of sensors and devices to be connected.  This lets us have a wee experiment with the Internet of Things.  Like building a Parent Detector.  Attach a PIR sensor and a camera, write a bit code and store your Pi in your bedroom.  When unwitting parent comes in to snoop around while you’re at school, the sensor will detect movement and the Pi will record a video which you can then submit as evidence at the evening trial.

What kid is not going to love that?

So the sensor and the camera module and some cables have been ordered.  About fifteen quid in total.

We’ve already discussed making a bird table with a camera attached and automatically posting pictures of the birds that visit onto Instagram.  Or even using a live feed on ustream.  And we’ve thought about how to protect it from the weather and how hard or easy it might be to run it off solar power and if the wireless signal would be strong enough to reach the hub.  We went in to Maplins last week and had a look at panels and regulators and we’ve done a bit of research online too.

Still, I’m sure Excel spreadsheets will be cool too.

Roll on next term.

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