Raspberry Jams: why Raspberry Pi is going back to school

24th Oct 2013 | 12:01

Raspberry Jams: why Raspberry Pi is going back to school

A recipe for success

The Raspberry Pi has been available for over 12 months now. Its launch was met with feverish excitement, but once the initial scramble for stock was over and people had a precious Pi cradled in hand, many turned to the question of what to do with all its potential.

In response to that human need to gather over a common interest, Raspberry Jams have popped up across the UK.

Raspberry Jams concept was devised by ICT teacher, Alan O'Donohoe. A long-time supporter of improved computing teaching in schools, Alan speaks at many education events on the subject, but his work promoting Raspberry Jams has led him on a different path to become, if you will, a self-proclaimed 'Jambassador'. He helps groups around the world to promote better understanding of computing for children.

Alan has worked closely with the Raspberry Pi Foundation, Mozilla and Google to create more opportunities for kids, and adults alike, to learn. We've interviewed Alan and number of Jam organisers about the network that's spread across the globe.

Pi Jam Preston

Linux Format: For those that don't already know you, can you tell the readers about your background?

Alan O'Donohoe: I am the Principal Teacher of IT and Computing at Our Lady's High School, Preston. I have been teaching for about 20 years. As a child I moved from Ireland to England, and when I was about 11 years old I saw my first computer, a BBC Micro.

During my time at school, the teachers weren't very knowledgeable about computers, I asked my teacher when I could use one, to be told that I would have to come in at break as there were very few computers available. I learnt to program in BBC Basic, using books and magazines, I loved the idea of making the computer do what I wanted it to do.

LXF: What gave you the idea to start the Jams?

AO: A few years ago, I was teaching ICT, and realised that we needed to change the way that ICT was taught in schools. I wanted to bring Computer Science into the classroom, even though I had not studied Computer Science myself.

I started reading up on the subject. I was looking around for resources and tools, but one of the problems I faced was the limitation of installing software on the school's computers, as they were heavily locked down. At the same time I was reading about an upcoming device, called the Raspberry Pi. The Pi would allow me to teach computer science to my students, as they would not be as restrictive as the school's sytems.

I started a Coding Dojo in my school. A dojo is similar to karate lessons, where the group learn coding skills in the same way that karate students learn via katas. The dojo led to a much larger event, Hack to the Future, a one-day unconference for children. This event had makers, hackers and IT industry figures interacting with children who learnt a whole lot more about computing.

Running Hack to the Future gave me the insight into running other events. When the Raspberry Pi was available for order, I, like a lot of people, was awake early, ready to pre-order my Pi, but due to the huge demand I was unable to secure one…

I was sure that if I got hold of a Raspberry Pi that I would be able to do lots of amazing things. So I thought, if I couldn't get hold of a Pi, then I would find people who have been able to. But, I was unable to find anyone who had a Pi, so I had the idea of running a group or event that would persuade people to come along with their Raspberry Pis, and show what they were doing with it.

I believed that there would be two sorts of people with Raspberry Pi, those that had created great projects, and those that had tinkered, and then put the Pi in a drawer. My event needed a name, so I asked my wife, and she came up with the name Raspberry Jam, using the word jam in the same way that musicians do, a group playing together.

I hosted the first Raspberry Jam, in a training centre, which is an annex of my school, the room could hold 30 people, and to my surprise, within 30 minutes of posting the event details online, all 30 tickets had been allocated. As this event was building up, I received a message from Australia, asking if they could set up a Raspberry Jam in Melbourne, a few days later Ben Nuttall asked if he could do the same in Manchester, I excitedly said yes to both these requests.

Pi Jam Preston

LXF: What support did you need?

AO: Initially, it was help from Martin Bateman, from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) who suggested that they might have a larger room, which I could use to hold the Preston Raspberry Jam. So I took him up on his kind offer, and for the next Jam, I very quickly sold out of all 80 tickets.

I realised that I needed people to bring equipment along to make the Jams happen, so I asked people to bring their projects along, and any spare keyboards/screen etc. It's great to have all of the resources and processes that enable you to produce an event, but what's greater is helping the group to interact with one another, helping their ideas flourish. These one to one interactions make running the Jam well worth it.

LXF: How did you publicise your early Jams?

AO: I used Twitter to spread the news, and to quickly spread the links to the various resources and ticket pages for people to use. For the ticketing I used Eventbrite, as it allowed me greater control over my event.

LXF: What are the Raspberry Pi Foundation's views on the whole Jam phenomenon?

AO: It's been really supportive of what I am trying to achieve, and I see this as a mutually beneficial arrangement, with the Jams supporting its goal of introducing computer science cheaply to children around the world.

LXF: What do you see as the future of the Jams?

AO: I would really love to see more Raspberry Jams taking place during school holidays and weekends. This would really open up the event to more children attending. I want people who wouldn't normally come to events such as this, to come along and try it out. I would love for more Jams to happen around the world, and not just be limited to large towns and cities. So if you haven't got a Jam in your area, start one!

Anyone can start a Jam, all I ask is that if you are child, that you seek help from a parent or teacher, to make sure that everything goes smoothly. The Jams can follow any structure you wish, from an informal hack session, to a conference style event.

At the last Preston Jam, we held a Scratch Dojo, where children and adults learnt to use the language. As long as people discover the potential of the Raspberry Pi, the Jams will continue.

LXF: What would you do differently if you had all of this to do again?

AO: As you may remember, I started the Jams from a possibly selfish point of view, I wanted to know more about the Raspberry Pi. I had no idea that this idea would grow so rapidly, so much, that I was not prepared for the growth - with my life as a teacher and family commitments, I had over committed myself by making myself too available. I wish that I had more experience in these types of events.

I think that if I had this to do again, I would assemble a team to help spread the work across many shoulders.

Every Jam is different

Pi Jam Cambridge

I've attended a few Jams around the UK, Cambridge, Manchester and York. And each has their own way of doing things. For instance, the Cambridge Jam in July 2012 was a very formal event, with a lecture hall being the venue for a series of talks from the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

I caught up with the organisers of three popular Jams: Michael Horne from Cambridge, Ben Nuttall from Manchester and Jack Wearden from Birmingham Raspberry Jams.

Linux Format: Who comes to your Raspberry Jam?

Ben Nuttall: We get a range of people attending the Jams: parents, kids, teachers, middle-aged electronics hobbyists and 20s to 30s techies. Sometimes a parent brings their son or daughter along to learn about computers as they're not getting anything out of what they do on computers at school, and they'll often come back with a few friends, or the rest of the family.

Jack Wearden: We've had all manner of people attend, ranging from parents and children to Linux professionals and even a heart surgeon!

Michael Horne: At the last Jam, it was mostly adults who attend but with a wide age range from university students to much older hobbyists.

LXF: Why did you start your Jam?

BN: I ordered a Raspberry Pi as soon as I could get on the website on the morning they were released, and I kept asking at MadLab if there would be a Raspberry Pi user group. It was suggested that maybe I should start one - and so I did. I ran a one-off Jam and people wanted to do it again, so I ran another. It seemed to be going well so I said I'd keep running them as long as people kept coming. There's no sign of it slowing down…

JW: Mainly to bring the community spirit of the Raspberry Pi into an academic environment, but also to allow younger attendees to get a glimpse into what computing involves at an academic level.

MH: I'd been to the Milton Keynes Jam and felt inspired to run one closer to where I lived. Cambridge seemed the most logical place as it is where the Pi was 'born'.

Pi Jam Manchester

LXF: How often do you meet?

BN: We meet monthly, usually on a Saturday. The exact date depends on availability of the space at Madlab, especially now we require both floors due to popular demand!

JW: We've met once before and a second is in the planning - it gets difficult to arrange around the university timetable, but we're hoping to run another at the start of the next term.

MH: The Jam I ran in May was the first one I've organised and the first in Cambridge for almost a year. We haven't settled on a regular venue yet. The Jam was held at the Centre for Mathematical Sciences and I'm hoping the next one will be on the Milton Science Park in July. I'm hoping that they will always be in Saturday afternoons as that seems best for most people and, in particular, families.

LXF: What structure does your Jam follow?

BN: I usually leave it open to what people want to do - I tried encouraging people to give talks and demos and we had a few early on, but generally people just turn up and want to hack, so we usually just end up doing that.

Since we get a number of novices, it's good to ensure everyone has something to do - so sometimes we have a skill-sharing initiative, where people write on sticky notes any skills they want, or skills they have, and we try to pair people up accordingly. There are always projects going on around the room and newcomers can always join in with what another group is working on.

At the big Anniversary Jam, I ran a track of talks and demos upstairs throughout both days, so we had Scratch and Python workshops, robotics sessions, camera module demos, and short talks about Raspbian, weather stations and an intro to Linux.

JW: We hire out two rooms; one is a hardware hack space and another is a talk space; after the introductory talk, attendees can either start hacking or give or watch talks or demos of their Raspberry Pi projects.

MH: The last Jam was split into four parts. There were two sessions of formal presentations and demos and then two 'show-and-tell' sessions where the attendees could mingle and see other projects that had been brought along.

Pi Jamboree

LXF: What projects have you or your Jam undertaken?

BN: Initially I used my Pi as a media centre and a tool for teaching Python, but more recently I've built a weather station for the BBC, I've been playing with the camera module for time-lapse photography, I've set up websites and used it to teach kids at MadLabU18's CoderDojo about how web servers work. We use one as a file server and shared database server at work.

One of my upcoming projects will be setting one up as an offline Bitcoin wallet! I'd also like to do more with GPIO in future.

JW: We had a particularly interesting talk given by a professor from the Computer Science department about porting an Artificial Intelligence engine to the Pi, along with a few examples of how AI software works - and doesn't work! - on different platforms.

MH: My first project was an attempt to create a 'tricorder' (a Star Trek device). Essentially, it's a bunch of sensors read by the Pi and an Arduino and displayed on a two-line LCD display. The second version is in development and does away with the Arduino to make a pure Picorder.

The second project is a pan-and-tilt mechanism for the official camera board that can be controlled via a web browser interface.

LXF: What would you like to do at a future Jam?

BN: More of the same! I love being at a Jam. There's a great atmosphere, you see people having so much fun, regardless of age and experience. In the early days it was difficult to organise talks as everyone was new to it, but now there are so many projects, there's more to share. The talks worked well at the Anniversary Jam so I think I'll do something similar in future, perhaps alternating between only having talks and just hacking time.

JW: At the next event we're hoping to help with the creation of resources for schools. Hopefully we'll be able to put together some useful material, which can make it easier for teachers to harness the power of the Pi in their classroom

MH: I'd eventually like to run a large-scale Jam in Cambridge similar to the recent Manchester Jamboree, which could feature hands-on workshop sessions and appeal to young programmers who want to work on projects 'on the day'.

The future of Raspberry Jams

Pi Jam Cambridge

It is clear, that the Raspberry Jams are here to stay, much in the same way that we have Linux user groups around the world. The open, social nature of these groups makes for a great learning environment, and the wealth of experience on hand is amazing.

After the success of the 2013 Jamboree (which can be considered the ultimate Raspberry Jam) there's talk of a second, larger Jamboree in 2014. The 2013 event attracted 400 people, with lots of teachers swapping knowledge and building lesson plans around the Raspberry Pi.

If you have one near to you, drop in on it and see for yourself. Find your local Jam on http://raspberryjam.org. If there isn't a Jam near to you, then why not have a go at starting your own.

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