Pi in the Sky?

The remarkable low-cost Raspberry Pi computer went on sale today, and has apparently sold out in two hours. The Raspberry Pi is a very cheap computing device that can be the basis for do-it-yourself systems and it has been suggested that it will revolutionise the teaching of computer science in schools. Instead of boring IT, students will experience the thrill of making something themselves and will, consequently, be inspired into further studies of computer science.

This is a great development, which I wholeheartedly support – computer science teaching in schools has left a great deal to be desired. And, for sure, it is possible that it will enthuse technically-oriented students to find out more about computer science and programming. It’ll be fun and I’m sure we’ll see lots of innovative and exciting development based on this device.

Now I really don’t want to rain on the Pi parade but, I find it hard to believe that this device will have much success in convincing the roughly 50% of school students who have, up till now, shown very little interest in any kind of computer science – girls.

As the father of two daughters, I have watched them develop in a technically literate household where they had access to computers and programming advice if they wanted it. But, their view and the view of all of their friends that I talked with was that programming was for geeks and nerds (I am not sure of the difference between these). While they were perfectly competent in using computers for various tasks, they  showed no interest whatsoever in programming as they simply did not see how it could be useful to them. The social image of programmers, of course, did not help – teenagers are very image conscious and being associated with an uncool group was something to be avoided.

If anything, the Raspberry Pi may make this situation worse, especially if it is taken over by teenage boys in a class who, shall we say, may not have the best social skills in the world.  Yes, it will re-introduce programming into the curriculum but that is only one problem that we have to face. The much more difficult challenge is to be able to demonstrate the relevance of programming to the whole population – not the technically-minded subset that will surely love their PIs. This won’t happen from bottom-up  cheap devices, but will need a top-down, application-oriented approach.

I was impressed by the efforts made in Georgia Tech to try and broaden the CS curriculum and demonstrate the relevance of programming to a wide spectrum of students. I don’t know how well these have succeeded in attracting more girls to computer science but it strikes me that this is the kind of initiative we need in schools to demonstrate the relevance of computer science to girls.

Doing this is hard – I certainly don’t have an answer to the problem of making CS female-friendly. But I do have concerns that the Raspberry Pi will simply reinforce the stereotype of computer science being a geeky subject that has nothing to offer to girls.


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