The computer lab in the Calhoun Middle School Library buzzed Thursday with the conversations of students, parents and instructors during Denton ISD’s last day of Raspberry Pi camp as students showed off what they created during the four-day program.
The camp, in its fifth year, taught middle school students how to program a Raspberry Pi — a computer system the size of one’s hand — to do whatever they wanted.
“What it can do is one thing really, really good,” said Dwight Goodwin, Denton ISD’s director of instructional technology. “It’s just a cool thing, and you’re only limited to your imagination.”
Once students have a Raspberry Pi to program, they can look up different projects they might want to do with it on the internet.
“That’s the great part about it is they get to use their imagination, and they get to do something that they want to do, not what we’re telling them [to do],” Goodwin said. “So that’s that creativity piece.”
Fourteen-year-olds Reilly Moore and Nathan Cowley created a game emulator with their Raspberry Pi, using RetroPie software to emulate retro game consoles.
“Normally, it’s usually very, very simple to set this up, so they require you do a second project because it’s so simple, but we’ve made this our single project, our one and only project, by greatly expanding on what most people would have by default,” Reilly said. “We have custom skin, we have a screensaver that just displays footage of various games that we have installed.”
With their Raspberry Pi, Reilly and Nathan were essentially able to create multiple game consoles.
“We tried to have as many [games] from each console, so we looked at what consoles were supported,” Nathan said.
Students apply to the camp, and while Goodwin said more boys apply than girls, they are focusing on trying to get more girls involved.
“When we go through the applications, we want to do our best to get girls and boys,” he said. “So that’s really important, too. Our goal every year is to get more girls.”
Tutorials exist online to help students program their Raspberry Pis, but students learn how to deal with any issues that they may have during the programming process. Brothers Noah and Ty Riggs, who attended the camp for the first time this year, created an LED screen after getting through problems that arose.
“The [tutorial] is really faulty, and there’s little to no instructions, so we had to follow pictures,” 13-year-old Noah said.
Ty, 14, said following the pictures was very hard.
“We had to switch the wires, and we thought that the wires were faulty so we got a new package of brand-new wires and then it finally worked,” Ty said.
When the brothers finally got their LED screen to light up, they yelled “Yes!” and Goodwin said he was really excited.
“It’s like that step-by-step process,” Goodwin said. “They might have typed in 30 minutes worth of code just to make sure it worked, and then when it did, it’s exciting, when you tell a computer to do something and it does it.”
Dealing with problems that come up with their projects is part of what students learn at this camp.
“Seeing them get frustrated and helping them push through that frustration is really great as a teacher,” said Leslie Terronez, the instructional technology specialist for Ryan High School. “And also when they have a success — so when their webcam will take a picture — it’s like ‘Whew!’ so we have tiny victories.”
There are also huge victories in this camp, such as when two students were able to get their digital whoopee cushions to work after some help with Terronez.
“They wouldn’t work, and they wouldn’t work, so this morning I sat down with them and we got them both to work,” she said. “And so when you hear the sound, it’s the best fart sound you’ve ever heard.”
This is the fourth year Terronez has helped with the Raspberry Pi camp, saying she didn’t know much about it herself.
“But I feel like I’ve learned as much from the kids as I’ve taught them, for sure,” Terronez said. “Probably more I’ve learned from them doing this.”
The uses for Raspberry Pi aren’t limited to projects such as making a webcam or game emulator. Thursday morning, the students had a Skype session with the chief of NASA’s balloon program, Terronez said.
“She talked about using Raspberry Pis in their science research balloons that go 100,000 feet into the atmosphere,” Terronez said. “So the sky is literally the limit.”
Jenny Wright, another instructional technology specialist, helped with her second Raspberry Pi camp this year.
“It was a challenge because I didn’t really know very much about Raspberry Pi and coding, but I’ve learned right along with the kids,” Wright said about her first year with the camp.
While the camp is limited to the amount of space in the computer lab, Goodwin is working on making the camp more widely available.
“Next year, our goal is to put it online so kids that don’t get in can also take it online,” he said. “And that’s the cool thing about the Raspberry Pi is it’s $35, so if you break it, it’s $35. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
And with the $35 price tag, students at the camp can buy another Raspberry Pi to program at their home if they want. The Riggs brothers said their father has already bought them one.
“We’re going to program more and do more stuff with screens,” Noah said.