After three days of talks, networking and learning from the brightest minds in Python programming, PyCon UK culminated with an Raspberry Jam – the coming together of programmers, teachers and 35 children to play, hack and program with the Raspberry Pi and Python.
Education was a very prominent theme at this year’s conference and the Raspberry Jam, sponsored by Bank of America, was proof positive that we can all play a part in the much-needed revolution of the UK’s tired and broken approach to ICT.
The Jam itself was hosted by Alan O’Donohoe and organised with Python UK’s Nicholas Tollervey. We sat down with Nicholas to delve deeper into this political hot potato and learn what part Python and the Raspberry Pi can play in securing the next generation of computer scientists.
Tollervey is a member of the Python UK organising committee and helps to run the event, but is also a Python programmer for The Guardian. Before becoming a Pythonista he was a teacher, so is extremely well placed to help engage the Python community in the wider computing movement and find new ways for programmers to work with teachers, many of whom are short of skills and the budgets needed to acquired them.
“We’re using devices like the Raspberry Pi and games like Minecraft Pi to change computing education from helping children use Microsoft Word, to learning how to program in Python,” says Tollervey.
“At last year’s PyCon we had a teachers track, which was quite small, but really quite successful. Some of the talks that we’ve seen during the course of this year’s PyCon were directly inspired by things that happened last year.
Tollervey was referring to the two Turtle library talks by Mike Sandford and Simon Davy, in which both parties took different approaches to bettering Python’s now ageing educational library, both with great success.
“After last year’s event they went away, collaborated with teachers and built something in an effort to create more engaging material that could be used in schools.”
The next step
“We had teachers come both this year and last, so we thought, what else do we need? What’s the next step? So this year we brought along children as well. We’ve got about 35 kids here with their parents and we’re having a Raspberry Jam with my friend Alan O’Donohoe,” explained Tollervey.
The event saw a wide range of fun and games for the kids including Minecraft Pi, a quadcopter (controlled from Minecraft Pi) and even a few Raspberrry Pi robots. As Alan O’Donohoe explained during a brief chat amid the mayhem, linking the Raspberry Jam with PyCon UK provided a unique chance to show developers the opportunities that exist for supporting ICT education in the UK.
“Many of the developers were encouraged and surprised to see the high level of challenge that the children were working at,” says O’Donohoe. “It was also noticeable that there was a 50/50 gender balance in our participants at the Jam – something that’s not true in the developer community.”
Alan’s work on the Raspberry Jam formula is entirely non-profit, so he relies on the sponsorship of companies like CPC for equipment loans and is currently looking for more sponsors to help with future events.
Is Python the right tool of the job?
“Absolutely,” enthuses Tollervey. “It strikes me that when you begin to program as a child using something visual like MIT’s Scratch is the way to get into it, because you can literally see the loop happening and watch the little cat moving around the screen. At some point, though, you’re going to have to sit down and use a real programming language. Python is a full featured programming language that people like Google, Disney and NASA use for important applications and it’s actually very easy to learn, but more interestingly, it’s very easy to bridge the gap between something like Scratch and Python, so it’s a great next step into a modern, full featured language.”
While decades late for many of today’s young professionals, the UK government has recently announced a new ICT curriculum. We asked Tollervey his over-arching view of the proposed changes that will see children as young as five challenged to write their first algorithm.
“I welcome the accent on computer science, programming and thinking computationally. That was what it was like when I was at school – I had a BBC B computer and I learned to program using BBC Basic. ICT education has gone down hill from that time, so it’s great to see this much needed change to the curriculum.”
It’s also something that directly affects Tollervey, who has children of his own, all of whom were attending the Raspberry Jam.
“My daughter is learning how to build a rocket in Python using Minecraft on the Raspberry Pi. She don’t realise it, but she’s pair programming with one of the UK’s top developers, which is pretty amazing. One of my sons is building another game and is working with a Python Core developer. They’re all having a great time in there and they’ve got some of the brightest minds in computing helping them.”
As our brief interview concluded Tollervey was quick to convey bigger and better plans for next year’s PyCon UK event.
“We hope to get more teachers. The strategy is that programmers aren’t teachers so we haven’t got the expertise to work with kids in the classroom – it’s teachers that affect the most change. By reaching out to teachers and showing them the tools, giving them confidence and showing them what it’s like in the industry, they can translate that into what they need to do in their own classrooms.”
Video of the education track at PyCon UK courtesy of Nicholas Tollervey
Images of the Raspberry Jam courtesy of Alan O’Donohoe.
Learn more about other Raspberry Jam events.