Setting up a Raspberry Pi Club

In preparation for the York Raspberry Jam, Alan O’Donohoe (@teknoteacher) asked if I would put together a “little talk” about my experiences setting up Raspberry Pi clubs in schools. This blog is a collection of experiences and ideas developed over the last few months of setting up school clubs.

I have formatted this blog a little bit like a presentation rather than a blog, so that I can use it for both without extra work.

A Process

Setting up a club will take more time than you think, it’s worth having a bit of a process or a checklist:

[1] Buy all the bits

[2] Configure everything

[3] Get additional resources

[4] Advertise the club

[5] First 3 sessions

[6] Managing Projects

 

[1] Buy all the bits

There are lots of bits!

   

If like most schools you have old VGA screens, you need an adaptor (about £14.99 from amazon)

The Pi power supply needs a good 1A or more, don’t skimp on power supplies, we had lots of resetting problems in the early days. The USB resets, this resets the ethernet, and everything keeps stopping. I use one of these adaptors from Maplin, which is good for powering a Pi and a HDMI/VGA adaptor plus the monitor and anything else you have.

Get yourself some breadboards and components, kids love building things they can interact with:

We kept a couple of teenagers engrossed for over 4.5 hours just flashing an LED – they started with the OCR “flash an LED” recipe, and kept adding to it. They turned it into a multi-level scoring skill game, and set up competitions to see who could get the highest score.

[2] Configure

Get a spare laptop with a card reader. You’ll need a way to create a large number of SDCards, and often you will need to be able to do this under pressure in the club when one of the kids trashes their card.

Put the standard Raspbian Wheezy build (or try the new NOOBS system) on all cards.

Also, download all the python documents, as they are not pre-installed on the Pi and you need internet access to read the online docs. Beware, there are two (slightly incompatible) versions of Python.

http://docs.python.org/2/download.html

http://docs.python.org/3/download.html

Our science-technician solved the “set-up and clear away” problem like this:

We also had problems with some USB hubs not working properly, in the end we used the 7-port hub from Maplin, as the CPC one was unreliable unfortunately.

Our technician then went on to improve his fast set-up and clear away:

Our science technician is a “serial problem solver”. He solves one problem, then discovers something else he doesn’t like and solves that.

The next issue he had was connecting to the GPIO’s, and he wanted a way that was self documented. He developed the Pi-ing lead:

The bit on the left is a piece of plastic cut out on the school laser cutter, with a label stuck on top. The kids push components through the circles in the label to connect to the GPIO’s. The lead is long enough to connect to the back of the TidyPi and be usable from the desk. A lot of research went into the correct labelling of the pins, as there was much conflicting information on the web about which pins were usable for which purposes.

You need lots of SDCards, and make sure you label them! Here was my solution, for less than a fiver from moo.com:

You need to decide if you are going to offer internet access, and if so, how. If you have a keyboard and mouse, you’ll need a USB hub in order to plug in a Wifi dongle. If you use the wired ethernet, you need a way of getting wires to all the Pi’s. We had problems with a number of the WiFi dongles keep resetting due to drawing too much power, so we moved over to wired in one club. But in some schools, this is not practical.

For our “turn up and run” saturday, club, I used a N300 Router from Maplin, which has a neat built in USB memory card slot and integral web server and ftp server. This gives us a way to share files between all Pi’s, and I provide internet access via this box too:

You can read more about the club box here:

http://blog.whaleygeek.co.uk/the-raspberry-pi-club-box/

[3] Resources

There are lots of bits on the web you can download and use, OCR has a very useful “signpost” document on their Raspberry Pi section. I won’t give a long list of links here, because I think part of what makes after school clubs great is that they take on a life of their own. There are some suggestions elsewhere on my blog that you can use if you get stuck.

[4] Advertise

Get the kids involved in this. In one school, a group of kids designed their own posters advertising the club, and had great fun using the computers, downloading Raspberry Pi logos, and coming up with lots of “Raspberry Pi Puns” to amuse themselves. But be prepared for demand – the poster generated huge interest and almost 50 kids turned up to one club!

[5] First 3 sessions

The first thing to do is make sure everyone knows what all the bits are for. I use a technique popularised by @MissPhilbin at GeekGurlDiaries, which is to put a Raspberry Pi on a sheet of A3 paper, and get the kids to label all the bits, and then take a photo of it:

For the first few weeks in all our clubs, we’ve managed to keep the kids busy learning some simple python. If you’re not a python programmer, don’t worry: download my http://blog.whaleygeek.co.uk/simple-python-programs/ to teach yourself just enough Python to get going, then set each of these progressive exercises to the kids and encourage them to experiment.

Also, print out my http://blog.whaleygeek.co.uk/python-flashcards/ and use them to stop the kids asking you lots of questions (and also use them as a prompt to yourself if you get stuck with some of the syntax!)

[6] Projects

Most of the projects we have worked on have centered around physical computing. Our very first project in our first club was to flash an LED, and then look at how we could make this more interesting – over a period of weeks the kids developed a complete electronic dice game with LEDs and a switch, an on-screen software simulation, and are now building a minecraft version of it.

Our main discovery with projects was that it is ok to keep adding more to it – start simple, and encourage the kids with ideas and suggestions to expand on the idea to turn it into something bigger.

One of our kids is using the Raspberry Pi as a host system to program arduino chips, and we have our own “minimal Arduino” based on a @ShrimingIt device. His current project is to put lots of flashing lights inside his Starship Enterprise airfix model:

 Managing Projects

The real benefit from after-school clubs, is that they could go in all sorts of directions, and kids can innovate with their own ideas. However, the first 3 weeks are quite critical to give them some very basic python experience and understanding of how to do things on the Raspberry Pi, and then to develop gradually into working on their own projects.

We like to use project books so the kids can keep a record of what they have been doing, and it also helps us adults to look back and quickly get up to speed on where they are (each kid doing a separate project can be a bit of a challenge to keep everything in your head otherwise).

 

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