Published on February 5th, 2015 | by Alexander Byrne
Geeky Gadgetry: Build a Raspberry Pi Computer
Children and teens are natural scientists trying to find out neat ways the world works. There are some inexpensive gadgets that a library can teach patrons how to build that can expand the world around them and exercise their scientific inquiry and their aesthetic sense. In this Geeky Gadgetry series, projects provide a platform for them to express their interests and get started on fulfilling pathways toward creation and ownership of their ideas and expressions.
The Raspberry Pi is a computer, for $35 (or less), approximately the size of a credit card, described as having the computing power of the original Xbox, but with much better graphics. It’s an all-purpose machine equipped with some extra functions as to make it a very friendly computer for hobbyists, learners, and those who want something more powerful than their Arduino to drive projects, or that can monitor and do multiple things in programs instead of a single thing in a sketch.
The $35 will get you the computer by itself, nothing more – to make a fully functional machine, inputs, monitors, storage for an operating system, a power supply, and other things will be needed, but those can be bought in a kit or separately. One of the first uses for Pi, before anything even starts up, is an easy way to teach people about the parts of a computer, how one would go about assembling the various peripherals that make a usable computer, and how to connect the peripherals to the appropriate ports on the Pi. (Connect power last, as there’s no on or off switch for the Pi, so it will start up immediately upon the connection of power) Physical assembly of all the components can also be accompanied by a walkthrough of how to format a memory card and transfer files to it, and then, on first boot, the process of selecting and installing an operating system for the Raspberry Pi, which hints already at the possible options. Using the New Out-Of-Box Software option (NOOBS) presents the choice of different flavors of Linux and options for turning the Raspberry Pi into a media center computer (Pi can output HD video at high speeds, making it a quiet and low-power machine for that purpose). Other operating systems and learning environments, such as those provided by Adafruit or Google’s Coder project can be downloaded and written to a memory card to be trialed. Or switched back and forth, depending on your needs. The Raspberry Pi could be used to set up a safe server for web applications to be written and debugged without exposing the network to malice, to provide an installation of blogging or content software that can be used for configuration and practice at operating and maintaining such installations before exposing them to the world outside, or to provide your users with a way to get comfortable with Linux that can be easily wiped clean and reset to a default in case something gets broken.
There are also projects intended to give the Raspberry Pi the ability to emulate multiple classic game systems, so not everything done with a Raspberry Pi has to be overtly educational. And it plays Minecraft. (A version specifically made for it, but Minecraft all the same.)
The newest-as-of-this-writing model of Raspberry Pi, the model B+, has a place where a 5 MP camera module can be attached, allowing the Pi to take still images and video at HD quality, which can make it a great unobtrusive recording device for programs (or security) or a nice device for creative folk looking to make video or still images inexpensively, which is neat for messing around or documenting something going on.
The star attraction for the Raspberry Pi over more traditional PCs is that the Pi has General Purpose Input/Output (GPIO) pins on its main board, which allows the Pi to be attached to any number of electronics projects that need a program to control its various elements or that can be made interactive with a computer interface and inputs. Sensors, buzzers, touchscreens, motors, microphones, or other elements can be connected to the Pi (or to a circuit board then attached to the Pi) to provide it with the ability to do and be the inexpensive brain for projects that can be written in whatever programming language the builder is comfortable with. The Raspberry Pi can be easily and quickly set up to program in a multitude of languages – Scratch, Arduino, Python, Ruby, and more are possible.
The possibilities are fairly open-ended for the Raspberry Pi – The Raspberry Pi foundation offers some suggestions on what you could do with it, based on what sort of accessories or electronics you may have available, but the Pi can be used in as many ways as there are creative ideas in your makerspace. The low cost also makes the Pi a possible loanable computer for use outside of your library, with or without the peripherals, so that projects can be taken home and worked on or so that people who don’t normally have access to a computer can use one.
The Raspberry Pi is a very versatile and inexpensive device with low power consumption, a complete Linux installation, and the ability to attach to other electronics or programs to extend its capabilities. If your makerspace or library programs have users looking to stretch out into programming devices or writing computer code, the Raspberry Pi can fulfill many of those needs for much less cost and worry than other computer options. Being small, it could also be embedded or built into projects or robotics to provide extra computing power and complexity. It’s a geeky gadget with possibilities – what can it do for you?