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Raspberry Pi in the classroom! #1026599
30th Nov 2016 9:27pm
30th Nov 2016 9:27pm
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FelixCowden Offline OP
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Re: Raspberry Pi in the classroom! [Re: FelixCowden] #1026623
1st Dec 2016 6:05pm
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I'm less enchanted by these things. They are enormously complicated - driving a screen display or even a USB link is not a simple task - and the children are working not on the hardware itself but on a software platform that is running on it. They would do as well doing it on a PC. There is no additional 'learning' content in a miniature version of a PC.

Far better I reckon to provide them with a plug-in breadboard and a microcontroller chip. These are the little self-contained microprocessors that are used for controlling washing machines and many other domestic appliances. Although you can make them drive a small display, they are better doing things like reading the state of switches and switching on LEDs or small motors. They contain processor, memory, data registers, input and output for digital or analogue signals and are ideal if you want to build a small wheeled robot, say.

The advantage is that they can be programmed very easily using assembly language which is extremely easy to learn - only about 20 or thirty instructions need to be learned, and you are in complete control of how data is being moved about the chip and gain an excellent idea of what computers actually do. This is all invisible if you are using a Raspberry Pi for instance.

They are also dirt cheap, like 50p each, will run from a couple of batteries, and with a few switches and LEDs you can start doing things with them. You do need a PC to program them, but many classrooms have these. All the software you need is free.

I am currently using one to operate a small stepper motor and do some other things for a personal project, and use 'C' to write the program rather than assembler, but that is because I know the language.

My point is that if you want to teach children what goes on in a microprocessor chip, you need one that is not too complicated, and you don't want to remove them too far from the hardware either. The Raspberry Pi and the Arduino both fall into this trap.

Learning to write programs in a high-level language like Python is of doubtful educational use. You may think what I am suggesting is boring, but you have not seen the delight of a child who has successfully caused an LED to flash and knows exactly how it was done, and begins to realise the potential of these simple devices.

Re: Raspberry Pi in the classroom! [Re: FelixCowden] #1026625
1st Dec 2016 6:20pm
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Its one of those things you can argue either way, it should be lower level, it should be higher level etc

What they have got is a highly versatile machine that can do all levels (including assembly).


In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act. George Orwell

We should judge our economy by the absence of poverty, not the number of billionaires - Jeremy Corbyn
Re: Raspberry Pi in the classroom! [Re: Excoriator] #1026627
1st Dec 2016 6:33pm
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I do agree, and i think microcontroller use in a classroom would fall into three categories:
  1. Advanced High school Computer class
  2. Used by primary school teacher, as a demonstration/introduction
  3. Rigidly structured class module for middle school students

Re: Raspberry Pi in the classroom! [Re: FelixCowden] #1026642
2nd Dec 2016 12:01am
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Nonsense.

Microcontrollers are easy to use. Much easier than the Pi where the unfortunate student is stuck on top of a tottering pile of software and has little clue as to what is really going on at machine level.

The idea that a computer MUST have a brightly coloured screen is a nonsense for a start, as is the idea that before any student can do anything, there has to be a text editor with copy and paste facilities. The reason that Sinclair's machine with its wobbly keys and dodgy power unit was so popular was that it was simple to write low-level code for it and get reasonable games running on it.

Youngsters managed all sorts of clever stuff on it.

It seems to me that much computer science these days seems to consist of learning how to write code in high level languages which remove a lot of the detail of how the data is actually manipulated. I came across a fine example of this some years back in a - very expensive - program which was supposed to calculate how many spare equipments you needed to have, given the number in service, their failure rate, and the level of reliability you needed. It worked OK for small numbers, but as the numbers increased it gave increasingly crazy results. At one point, the more equipments you deployed, the fewer failures you could expect! Nutty! It was, however, gorgeously presented with all sorts of windows and scroll bars and pop-ups.

It turned out that these calculations involve the ratio of factorials which are in themselves huge numbers. The programmer had gaily written a program that computed - say - 100! (or 100x99x98x...x2x1) directly, leaving it to the compiler to sort out how to handle the resulting enormous number. It didn't of course, and the result was nonsense. A colleague and I rewrote the offending bit in assembler using a strategy that kept the ratio of these factorials to a reasonable level and it worked fine.

When I phoned the company and told them of the problem, they tried to blame the compiler and said they intended to take it up with them! (Good luck with that one, I thought as I hung up!) They were a young company and had probably all been educated in what passes as computer science these days.

Had they ever done any low-level work it would not have happened. Not only is it easier to teach if you start with the basics, it gives better results in the end.

Re: Raspberry Pi in the classroom! [Re: FelixCowden] #1026646
2nd Dec 2016 1:19am
2nd Dec 2016 1:19am
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A Raspberry Pi is only a glorified microcontroller, a risc processor with a load of IO stuck on it.

Very little programming doesn't involve a GUI, the old skill set of writing fast code in minimum space is very limited.

I'm a die-hard old fashioned programmer, I've written far more programs in assembly than any language, but what is the use of assembly now? Its all about libraries and object orientated stuff, repeatedly writing everything in assembly is inefficient, libraries are only another name for a language (or pseudo-language if you wish).

I punched paper-tape by hand (literally with a single hole punch and hammer), there is no need to go back to the roots. It was valuable at the time, its not now. It wasn't efficient then and its not efficient now.

The biggest market for programmers by far is in internet programming followed by data processing/analysis, that is where the job vacancies are, that is where the money is.

The jobs are in C++ or HTML(and its associations), JAVA may have more applications running than anything else but a relatively small number of programmers.

Got to admit I avoided microcontrollers as getting my head around a 14 bit architecture on an 8 bit bus didn't seem to make any sense to me when I was looking at code level, I don't think I ever got round to switching my PIC development board on. Give me a 6521 or a Z80 pia any day.

These days I'm happy doodling with PHP, a beautiful and totally insane conglomeration of the best and worst of many other languages - but I do miss my assembly, I load up emulators sometimes just to have a play like the old days.


In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act. George Orwell

We should judge our economy by the absence of poverty, not the number of billionaires - Jeremy Corbyn
Re: Raspberry Pi in the classroom! [Re: FelixCowden] #1026662
2nd Dec 2016 10:32am
2nd Dec 2016 10:32am
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I like Pascal best for what I am interested in, but I consider programming a tedious and uninspiring business. Calling it 'software engineering' irritates me too. The important thing about any engineering design is the ability to give provable and testable guarantees of its strength or performance - the load capacity of a bridge, or the bandwith of an amplifier etc. then labelled 'features' and the work is shipped. That isn't engineering. It is 'contrapting'.

Having read lots of them, I still think the best book on computers and how to program them is Donald E Knuth's "The art of Computer Programming" in which he defines an arbitrary instruction set - a pseudocode language if you like - which he uses in the book to illustrate various methods of doing things like sorting or multiplying etc. with an analysis of their speed and memory usage etc. You can relate them directly to microcontrollers using assembly language, but high-level languages like C or Pascal obscure it, and the result is often rather inefficient in terms of its size and speed.

I think 'horses for courses' is important in choosing what processor you are going to use. A PIC is pretty perfect for my current application, but I wouldn't attempt to use it for probabilistic primality testing of a thousand digit prime for instance. Arguing about what it the 'best' microprocessor is a bit futile, therefore. I use C, a language that doesn't suit me well, because it is there and free, and if you are not too bothered about its performance it is quicker to write than assembler. I use assembler if I want speed or fine control of the machine, and link the two.

As to what is the most 'saleable' skill, I don't think that should have much if anything to do with education which should not be primarily organised for the benefit of industry. If you have a good grasp of what the machine is capable of learning a high-level language is pretty easy to pick up anyway. In my case I am retired and it's a fun activity, so I am unconcerned about its saleability.

My main point is that if you want to teach kids, you should use the simplest possible form of processor. As Turing showed, they are all equivalent, and if you can get your head round the simplest of them (In his case the UTM) then you can understand ALL computers. It might be better if such a simple processor were to be designed for kids to learn on. Teaching them a high-level language on a system equipped with quite sophisticated facilities like Ethernet, USB, and a graphics driver strikes me as exactly the wrong way to go about it.

Re: Raspberry Pi in the classroom! [Re: FelixCowden] #1026675
2nd Dec 2016 3:16pm
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That was funny, I deleted a paragraph before I posted, in it declaring Pascal as one of my least liked languages, then your first few words mentioned it.

I never fully understood why C became so popular, its a fairly simple language to write code (apart from a few anomalies) but not so easy to read, when debugging a 3rd party C code I've sometimes had to look as the assembly language.

I've probably spent more than half of my programming life debugging other peoples' code and see languages in a different light.

I'm glad the schools have gone adrift from the plethora of turtle graphics stuff, while its a good concept for primary schools I always thought it a bit repetitive for secondary pupils. It gives an insight to "pure" programming (ie a series of steps) but it almost completely obliterates the real world stuff such as storage.

I thought education was mostly about preparation for jobs, it wouldn't be much use teaching students wheel-tapping but would be great to have them see and use inductive, ultrasonic or dye crack detection. Its also more motivating if they can see a reason/outcome for what they are learning, "pure" subjects can result in glossy eyes far too quickly.


In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act. George Orwell

We should judge our economy by the absence of poverty, not the number of billionaires - Jeremy Corbyn
Re: Raspberry Pi in the classroom! [Re: FelixCowden] #1026720
2nd Dec 2016 11:32pm
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I like Pascal because it is easy to read and remember. I can pick up pascal units, functions and procedures that I wrote 20 or more years ago and they still make sense. I can't do that with C.

I have a load of routines for manipulating very large numbers, representing them, performing arithmetic on them, exponentiating them modulo another large number and so forth that I wrote years back on a VAX machine and am still using - unchanged - on a PC.

As a teenager, I got a summer job one year in STC helping to design crystal filters. I think I learned more about both filters and transmission theory in six weeks than I did in years at university! One day, I was asked if I'd like to help out working nights on a thing called a computer at Cardiff University, running some elliptic filter calculations. It paid a penny an hour more so I did that. The machine was huge and slow. It was also unreliable and prone to mains-borne noise. The University charged more for night use as it worked better then. Even so, we had to run each calculation several times to get a consistent answer! All assembler by the way. No TV screens - horrible clanking electromechanical telex terminals!

Algol had just been written then, but I've never used it. A good PASCAL program is a joy to read, like a mathematical proof. Logical and easy to follow.

I disagree fundamentally that education is anything to do with jobs. It is about encouraging students to pursue their interests to the limits of their abilities. Who is to say, for instance, that music - or the arts in general - is less important to the economy or the individual than engineering. The arts certainly earn a load of foreign exchange in music, television, advertising, books etc. All strongly arts based. You need to pursue your personal star, not study something you hate because it will get you a 'good' job. There is nothing worse than spending decades dragging yourself day in day out to a job you loathe!

I'm not a programmer by enthusiasm, training or inclination. It is just that I've had to use it over the years to solve problems and to implement functions less expensively than designing hardware to do it. As a skill I have little respect or liking for it. It seems to me to be largely a matter of training yourself to follow someone else's ideas and it generally doesn't work very well. There are almost no programs which don't experience 'crashes'. I am actually baffled as to why politician seem to think it so important to teach our children 'coding'. Perhaps its just that politicians are generally clueless about technology, and don't know what they are talking about, but surely that can't be true. Can it?

Re: Raspberry Pi in the classroom! [Re: FelixCowden] #1026724
3rd Dec 2016 12:45am
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I'll have to have another look at Pascal, apart from helping a uni student with his project the last time I looked at it was back in the CP/M days.

I love what schools are doing in design technology, with all the laser cutters, 3D printing and suchlike, design will be a growth industry creating opportunities for techies and artists. It can't be long before you will be able to order domestic appliances (TV's etc) in the size you want instead of the preset sizes they produce.

Didn't realise that STC actually produced crystal filters, I always assumed they were badged. I'm fairly sure I've still got a few 5 pole and 7 pole STC 10.7MHz filters stashed away somewhere, I used them to modify receivers for weather satellite use.


In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act. George Orwell

We should judge our economy by the absence of poverty, not the number of billionaires - Jeremy Corbyn
Re: Raspberry Pi in the classroom! [Re: FelixCowden] #1026754
3rd Dec 2016 11:04pm
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Pascal is really nice and easy to understand. Consider:

index, total : integer;

total := 0;

for index = 1 to 10 do
total := total + index;


I bet anyone - with no experience of the language - could work out that this is summing the numbers from one to ten. Compare it with the 'C' equivalent! You can, by the way, download the object-oriented version of Borland Turbo Pascal as 'Delphi' for free. It's quite sophisticated, despite being sustained these days by enthusiasts.

As to STC's crystal filters, I doubt if it is still doing them, even if the company still exists. They were, in the late 1950s, primarily a cable manufacturer, and this led them into developing frequency division multiplexing equipment. I worked in a transmission lab attached to a cable factory in Newport, South Wales, and was fortunate in falling under the wing of an engineer who was keen to get back into education and was as keen to teach me the theory as I was to learn ikt. He later left and went back to university as a lecturer. I think STC became part of ITT shortly after.

By today's standards, they were primitive times. I recall an instrument about five feet tall that you wheeled about the lab. It was a frequency counter! The display consisted of perhaps eight moving coil meters with the scales labelled one to nine - there were no numerical displays at the time! These days frequency counters are the size of your phone!

I also recall my walking about a mile from the factory with my adopted tutor to the bus station. One evening, I noticed him moving rather slowly and more stiffly. He soon started sweating profusely as we walked along, and I got quite worried about him. He said he would be OK once he got to the bus station toilets, and he shot in when we got there. I noticed he had put on quite a bit of weight as he went in. He emerged shortly after grinning broadly and looking much slimmer and carrying a large coil of TV coaxial cable - which was made at the factory. He explained that they had acquired a TV set - pretty rare then and expensive - but couldn't afford the cable! He had smuggled it out wrapped around his waist and the extra weight and thermal insulation had damn nearly done for him!

Re: Raspberry Pi in the classroom! [Re: FelixCowden] #1026774
5th Dec 2016 11:13am
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A very old article. The Pi has been and gone. Its now the Micro Bit.

https://www.microbit.co.uk/

To be honest its not brilliant.

Re: Raspberry Pi in the classroom! [Re: Excoriator] #1026775
5th Dec 2016 11:17am
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Originally Posted by Excoriator
The reason that Sinclair's machine with its wobbly keys and dodgy power unit was so popular was that it was simple to write low-level code for it and get reasonable games running on it.


And price. Clive Sinclair wanted to be the first to market a 99 machine.

Micro Men is an absolutely brilliant programme of the computer wars at the time:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXBxV6-zamM


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