‘By any means necessary’ – Interview with Raspberry Pi co-founder Eben Upton

Since launching its first microcomputer in 2012, the Raspberry Pi Foundation has taken the world by storm. Jonathan Easton speaks to co-founder and Raspberry Pi Trading CEO Eben Upton about filling the skills gap and inspiring a new generations of coders…

Let’s start with the recently announced partnership with CoderDojo. How did that come about and what’s the end goal?

CoderDojo is one of a number of organisations that started off at the same sort of time as us in 2012 and we’ve been interacting with them since. We’ve grown up alongside each other and we’re trying to achieve similar things: trying to get people involved with STEM subjects and, in particular, coding. 

They are a group on a similar sort of mission, but there’s not a strong overlap as to where they’re geographically strong and in their funding sources so merging felt like a natural way to combine our experiences We’re not talking about coming together and then closing a load of things down

And they’re lovely people. It might get overlooked sometimes, but ultimately if you’re going to merge two organisations together you’ve got to make sure the people on the other side are people who you have a good time with and you want to make sure they are decent people. The founders – Bill Liao and James Whelton – and the people who work for the organisation in Dublin are all extremely nice people and I’m looking forward to spending time with them.

Going way back to the beginning, what were the biggest problems in education that you were looking to rectify?

The problem was that we weren’t generating any 18 year olds who were excited about computing anymore. If you look at the mid-1990s to the middle part of the 2000s you saw an appalling decline in the number of people who were applying to university to study computing. University applications are a proxy for how excited young people are about technology. And at Cambridge we saw a drop over 50 per cent in applicants between 1999 and 2005. It’s a massive threat to academia and a massive threat to industry. What we were trying to do was solve that. Reboot by any means necessary. 

We wanted to find out what had gone wrong with the pipeline and our idea was that the absence of a kind of device like Raspberry Pi was a big problem. We wanted to make a machine to reboot the pipeline. 

“What we’ve done is show kids how computing can be a tool to let them accomplish what they want to do.”

It’s one thing coming up with a mission statement, but it’s another to actually do it. How do you appeal to kids? What gets them excited?

We had this idea that the disappearance of those very programmable computers had led to this decline in numbers and that maybe if we gave people a programmable computer again then maybe those numbers would recover. 

Quite a lot of what we’ve done is trying to make it appear relevant to not just the quite small minority of children who are – like I was – just enthusiastic about computing for its own sake, but to try and show kids how computing can be a tool to let them accomplish other things they want to do. 

If you look we have the Weather Station programme that shows kids that computers can work with the geography curriculum. We have the Astro Pi programme where we put Raspberry Pis on the International Space Station and they can interact with the physics and biology curriculum. We had a creative technologists programme that tried to relate computing to art and creativity. If you can position computing and demonstrate it as being relevant to kids accomplishing what they want to then that’s key to unlocking mass participation.

While in an ideal world you’ve got a generation of kids that have been raised on coding, their teachers likely weren’t afforded the same education. Are you looking at the teachers, parents and adults in general or are you just focusing on kids?

Over the last five years we’ve gone from having a computing curriculum which is focused on the likes of Excel and Powerpoint, to one which concentrates on programming. That’s fantastic, but unfortunately the government’s investment in teacher training to support that has been wholly inadequate. 

You’ve got a shiny new curriculum which is really fit for purpose, and you’re expecting people who don’t necessarily have quite the right skillset to go and deliver that in the classroom. That’s not fair on anyone. It’s not fair on the kids and it’s not fair on the teachers. It’s massively demoralising for teachers to be expected to just be thrown in at the deep end. 

A lot of what we do is about helping teachers. Whether that’s in our Picademy programme that trains teachers in person over a one or two day course that gives you that grounding in what we mean when we talk about the modern notion of computing. We also produce plenty of online material and a lot of that is targeted at teachers in particular.

Obviously the Code Club and the CoderDojo programmes have a massive emphasis on adult volunteers and that’s really important because what you get there often are people who work in the industry and already have that kind of skillset. What’s wonderful about the UK at the moment is that there is so much enthusiasm among professionals to share their knowledge. There’s finally a sense that this is an idea whose time has come.

Raspberry Pi seems to have taken the onus in getting teachers educated. Do you feel that there’s more that the government can do?

Yeah, the government can start by doing something. 

So you don’t think the government is doing anything at all?

It’s appalling. It’s an embarrassment, just awful. We are doing this and we think we’re pretty good at doing this, but fundamentally this is not something we should be having to do. It’s a terrible failure. We advocate constantly to the government that they should step up in this area. Fundamentally, training teachers is a job for the government and we’ll do it while we wait, but we’re not going to stop saying that the government should do it.

We as an organisation don’t have a party political preference. Ultimately the side that’s in government is the side that can do something about it, and it’s up to them to step up to the plate and deliver. 

Tech has been fairly criticised as being notoriously difficult for women and girls to get involved with. What are you doing to make it more accessible to them?

We’re very proud that 40 per cent of the attendees of Code Club (which is targeted at nine to 13 year olds) are girls, which is really important because society peddles the idea that STEM subjects aren’t for girls and that’s the age where the average girl is outperforming the average boy. And yet lots of girls are convinced to turn away from these subjects. An intervention at an early age can keep a nine year old girl excited about STEM subjects and it makes it more likely that our industry will keep going strong. 

CoderDojo, typically is about 30 per cent girls and is still a lot better than the industry where you’re down in the 10-20 per cent range. I would expect if you look at the computing industry in 20 years time it will be much more representative. Not just in terms of gender, but also in ethnicity and social background. 

Another great Code Club statistic is that school districts that are classed as ‘deprived’ (which is based on the proportion of students that have a pupil premium), are now more likely to have Code Clubs than privileged school districts. This isn’t even a middle class thing anymore. There’s nothing more powerful for social mobility than STEM subjects. Engineering doesn’t care who your dad is. Your dad can get you a nice job in PR, but having good family connections isn’t going to help if the bridges that you’re building fall down or the programs that you run crash. 

It’s completely unacceptable how few women there are in computing, but the very fact that there are so few women in computing means that it’s the easiest, low-hanging fruit. 

If you can just bring the number of women in computing up to the same level as the number of men then you’ve basically doubled your computing workforce in no time at all. 

How important is affordability with Raspberry Pi products?

It’s really important. The goal with Raspberry Pi was to make a computer that cost the same as the price of a text book. Most kids can afford a textbook and the minority of who can’t can be subsidised by the school. 

It’s why we did Raspberry Pi Zero – the one we gave away on the front of a magazine in November 2015. It was the £5 computer, it’s the latte computer. Because there’s nothing that’s more important than making sure that there isn’t a barrier to access computing.

PCR’s Sector Spotlight on Education – in association with Westcoast – is running throughout August 2017 – click here for more articles

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