“Chuck it in the skip!” she said from across the table. At first, I nodded in agreement, pretending to understand, but my curiosity got the best of me and I had to ask, “I’m sorry — what..?” I’d only been in England for a few days, but I’d already encountered countless expressions that forced me to admit ignorance and to lean on the kindness and patience of others. It would turn out to be a valuable skill in the days to come!

I’ve been messing around with Raspberry Pi for about a year now, but never made much progress. Earlier this year, I received a Kano as a gift and enjoyed building the computer and leveling up my avatar as I completed challenges along the way. But it wasn’t until January of this year that I stumbled upon Raspberry Pi Academy via Lenny Dutton’s Twitter banner image. Intrigued, I reached out:

Navigating to the Picademy website, I read their description of the program:

Over the course of two days, 24 teachers get hands-on with computing here at Pi Towers in Cambridge, and discover the many ways in which the Raspberry Pi can be used in the classroom. No experience is necessary; the Foundation’s Education Team will help you discover practical ways in which Raspberry Pi can support and further your teaching of the new curriculum.

This was exactly what I was looking for! I immediately set out to complete the application process and create a short video focused on being a 21st century educator.

A few months later I received an invitation to join Picademy 8 in Cambridge, UK April 27–28! Now it was time to make travel arrangements, reach out to the other attendees, and review my python scripting skills..!

The next 6 weeks seemed like an eternity, but the time finally came for me to board a plane headed for London.

My itinerary included spending Saturday and Sunday exploring London before taking a train to Raspberry Pi Towers in Cambridge. Having never been in England, I was excited to have an opportunity to visit as much of the city as would be possible with two days and a limited budget. My Airbnb flat was located right near the London Eye, so I was in a great location for sightseeing. Some of London’s most popular spots were basically on my front porch!

But I wanted to go far afield, so I ambled across Westminster Bridge and headed towards St. James Park where I rented a “Boris Bike” and rode through the park, across Kensington Garden, and up to Notting Hill where I dismounted and found a place to grab lunch.

From there, I wound my way back through the City, heading towards Covent Garden, where I would be meeting Cat Lamin and Steve Bagnall for dinner at Polpo, which was amazing.

The next morning, I woke up and walked over to grab breakfast at Borough Market, which is an open air market “celebrating 1000 years in Southwark”. I found some great coffee and walked around to all of the vendors selling fresh breads, cheeses, and produce. It was St. George’s Day, so there were street performers and cooking demonstrations.

After walking to the nearest Underground station, I traveled to Camden Town where I saw street performers and walked the labyrinthal markets that seem to encompass an entire city block. By this time, it was well after lunch and I needed to find my way to King’s Cross in order to catch the train to Cambridge.

Looking for Platform 9 3/4

Once in Cambridge, Steve and his family picked me up at the station and we drove together to the hotel. As other Picademy people started to arrive, we arranged to meet for dinner in the hotel restaurant. After a late evening of eating and laughing, we called it a night and went to bed, ready to begin Raspberry Pi Academy the following morning.

7AM came early, but I managed to get out of my room and into the lobby in time to catch a cab with the rest of the group to Raspberry Pi Towers. Once there, we buzzed in and climbed the steps to their offices where we were welcomed by the team and ushered into a room with tea and cookies. Local traffic forced us to start a few minutes late in order to allow time for other people to arrive. Around 9:15 we gathered together in a large room and Picademy officially began with Carrie Anne giving an overview of the development and utilizations of Raspberry Pi. We were then broken into two groups and began a series of workshops that ran through the remainder of the day.

My first session was run by Martin O’Hanlon, author of Adventures in Minecraft, who helped us learn how to program Minecraft with Python. Martin showed us how to transport Steve to new locations and how to build a house that follows close behind him, wherever he goes, so that Steve always has a safe place to sleep..! With just a few lines of code, we were able to create a rainbow bridge that is built from blocks that instantly appear underfoot wherever Steve steps. This allowed Steve to walk on air! Teaching students Python by tying it together with Minecraft is a brilliant way of making the computer curriculum more engaging and enjoyable for students!

The second session was run by Sam Aaron, who demonstrated how Raspberry Pi can be used to compose and perform music of all genres with a program he created called Sonic Pi. Within minutes, we were getting our hands dirty with samples, loops, and code. Sam showed us how he uses Sonic Pi for live performances by utilizing live loops, which allow him to turn off and on specific phrases in the composition by commenting out lines of code. This integration of music and code would be an amazing approach to take for music classes, music technology courses, and, of course, programming tracks.

Pibrella seeks to make deployment of Raspberry Pi simpler for young or new users. It sits atop a Raspberry Pi board and comes equipped with a set of LEDs, small speaker, and an input button! Les Pounder challenged us to find ways to spin a wheel 360 degrees to create a Wheel of Fortune-like mechanism. This would be a great first step in a class looking to get students started on physical computing and/or working with Raspberry Pi.

Raspberry Pi comes equipped with a camera interface, and Ben Nuttal led us through a session that helped us figure out how to use it! We connected a Raspberry Pi camera and then wrote some code to activate it in order to take a selfie. From there, we modified the code to alter the camera’s behavior and could quickly see how the camera could be used for a multitude of projects and purposes, such as time lapse or wildlife photography.

The last session of the day was focused on using Scratch GPIO, but it was not cooperating with the newest Raspberry Pi 2, so we worked directly in Python to manipulate a series of LEDs. I’m a big fan of Scratch and am very excited to use the GPIO version to create programs that interface with physical objects via Raspberry Pi!

By this point in the afternoon, my capacity for absorbing more information was quite limited. It was time to head to dinner and let it all sink in..!

The Raspberry Pi team was generous enough to treat all 24 Picademy attendees to dinner at a local restaurant located right near the River Cam. When the dishes had been cleared, we walked downtown to a local pub called The Eagle and spent time discussing project ideas and moonshot thinking for implementation of Raspberry Pi into our respective curricula. Before long, it was way past my bedtime so I headed back to the hotel and crashed into bed.

The next morning, we met extra early in order to grab breakfast at a small cafe across the street from Raspberry Pi Towers. At 8:30, Day Two began and we assembled again in the meeting room for an overview of the day’s events. Dave Honess spent a few minutes discussing the amazing new Astro Pi, which will be brought to the International Space Station with British astronaut Tim Peake. The Astro Pi is an incredible piece of hardware that is described thusly:

What makes the Astro Pi so special is the Hardware Attached on Top board, called HAT for short. This board, as the name suggests, is attached on top of the Raspberry Pi computer via the 40 General Purpose Input Output (GPIO) pins which provide the data and power interface. This board has several integrated-circuit based sensors that can be used for many different types of experiments, applications, and even games. The HAT board includes:

  • Gyroscope
  • Accelerometer
  • Magnetometer
  • Temperature sensor
  • Barometric pressure sensor
  • Humidity sensor
  • 8×8 RGB LED matrix display
  • Visible light or Infra-red (Pi NoIR) Cameras
  • 5 button joystick
  • Additional functional push buttons
  • Real time clock with backup battery

They’ve issued a challenge to students across the UK to write programs that could be used in space. Winning projects will actually be run via the Astro Pi on the ISS! Amazing.

Having spent the previous day learning all about how to use Raspberry Pi, we would be spending Day Two using that knowledge to work on a project of our own choosing. How would we use what we’d learned?

I was blown away by the Astro Pi, and knew immediately that I wanted to spend more time learning about what it can do. Before long, I found a partner in Elani McDonald and we set to work trying to brainstorm project ideas for the Astro Pi.

Our first question was, If it can go into space, where else can it go? We considered submarines and active volcanoes, but pretty quickly found ourselves discussing how to build an earthquake early warning system. The Astro Pi has a gyroscope and an accelerometer that can be used to detect movement across coordinate planes as well as yaw, pitch, and roll. We drew up a concept and started working on the code that would make this system work. Without going into too much detail, our first task was to find out how early warning systems work, then try to identify “normal” parameters for ground movement. Once that was established, we were able to write code that did the following: When the Astro Pi detected movement that exceeded the normal parameters, it communicated with Raspberry Pi to send an alert to the user. And while we were only to get the alert to print in terminal, with more time we could have created alerts with various APIs such as Twitter or Gmail to alert the user that an earthquake was imminent. Our vision was to build an affordable earthquake early warning system for populations who live in areas of high tectonic plate activity. Naturally, we christened it Magni Pi.

At the end of the day, we all reassembled in the meeting room and shared our projects. And it is not an overstatement to say that I was blown away by the creativity and ingenuity of my fellow Picademy attendees! I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if you found their work featured on the Raspberry Pi website or even on a store shelf sometime in the near future!

Carrie Anne then led us in a credentialing ceremony where we received our Raspberry Pi Certified Educator certificate and pin, and even had our pictures taken with Eben Upton!

Picademy 8 cohort doing their best superhero pose!

When the goodbyes were said, and everyone else started their journeys home, I still had another night in Cambridge ahead of me. So I grabbed my gear and spent the remainder of the day ambling through the windy streets of the city.

Around 6:30 that evening, I managed to find myself in the beautiful St. John’s chapel for a glorious evensong service. And from there, I found dinner and then took the long walk back to the hotel where I packed my things, set the alarm for 5AM, and collapsed into bed.

The next day began in earnest as I took a taxi from the hotel to Cambridge train station for the hour+ trip to King’s Cross. From there, I took another train to Gatwick Airport for an hour flight to Dublin then a seven hour flight to JFK where I then rode the AirTrain and E train to 5th Avenue and then walked to Grand Central Terminal to catch the final leg of the journey back to Connecticut. It was an incredibly long day of traveling, and I was happy to find myself back in the company of my amazing family.

So now what?

I am incredibly fortunate to be working with colleagues who are anxious and interested in making their technology classes more relevant for their students. As such, we have been working hard to reimagine their curricular goals and expectations. My experience at Picademy has empowered me to bring Raspberry Pi to these classes as a vehicle for teaching programming and physical computing. Using Astro Pi, we can more effectively use our campus weather station in cross-curricular projects across the grades. Our Labrary innovation lab can facilitate clubs and events for students looking to get behind the consumer user interface of most computers and become creators of their own powerful tools. In short, my mind is ablaze with ideas and enthusiasm for how to positively impact my community. I am grateful to the Picademy team for their efforts on our behalf, and am looking forward to working with them in the future as we seek to empower students to build a better, more sustainable, and connected world!