Meet Raspberry Pi: A computer, not a dessert

This post is part of a series about Project Empathy, a global service learning project in knowledge sharing being piloted by the GEMS World Academy Chicago 7th grade. To learn more, visit the project homepage.

After seeing Raspberry Pi’s in action at the Catalyze co-working space, it was time to let the students start tinkering. This was module two of the Project Empathy service learning project with the GEMS World Academy Chicago 7th grade.

This second module was split over two weeks. In the first week, students opened the Project Empathy kits and got acquainted with the Raspberry Pi. They assembled the cases, powered up the Pi’s, and installed Raspbian. In the second week, the students broke into three groups: one group assembled the Project Empathy kits and installed the ORxPi software, a second group used Sonic Pi to create audio files, and a third group documented the process of the first two groups.

I remember when I was in 7th grade and had 45–50 minute classes. Those class periods could feel so long. Now, standing on the other side, it feels like barely enough time to scratch the surface.

Students assembling Project Empathy kits.

There were a few objectives at play in this module. The first was general comfort around the Raspberry Pi hardware. What is remarkable about Raspberry Pi (among many remarkable traits) is that it is a raw piece of hardware that students can freely manipulate. Most electronics warn you not to open them up and look inside. With Raspberry Pi, it arrives already opened up and requires effort to actually enclose it.

We also wanted to continue to reinforce the awareness of audience. This is a major component of honing empathy: instead of just reading instructions and completing a task, be aware of how you are synthesizing those instructions and how you might convey your work to others. We run into this all the time in class work. I was always annoyed by my math teacher deducting points for not showing my work. “But I got the right answer!” I would protest. Transcribing via pencil what happened so much faster via neuron seemed like tedious busy work to me. I might have felt differently if I knew that my math homework would be read by someone my age who might not have a textbook and not understand algebra. In that context, showing work makes sense and becomes essential. The journey becomes equally as important as the destination.

After this first stab at hardware and the documenting that resulted, the results were rough. Students were assigned to create instructions for what they completed, and they contained many holes presumably filled by the “mental math” of assumed knowledge by the students. My instructions contained many of these same faults. In watching the students try to follow what I had written online for assembling a Project Empathy kit, I saw places where I had done quite a bit of assuming.

Ultimately, the results of this module were a success. Students seemed to really enjoy digging into the hardware. It also set the stage really well for giving the students a chance to more intimately learn about their audience, which will be the focus of Module 3.

To read more about Project Empathy, including the student podcast from this module and student work, visit the Project Empathy website.