On October 4th and 5th, Lewis’s Computer Science Department offered a seminar for students on the Raspberry Pi, the remarkable $35 Linux-based computer that has taken the computer hobbyist community by storm. With over one million of the little pocket-sized computers-on-a-chip sold last year, the Raspberry Pi has re-introduced the world to the wonder that is computing. The device has the power of a computer you could have bought with a case and lot more polish four years ago for a much higher price. The Pi, however, purposely leaves its circuitry exposed, making it impossible for enthusiasts to ignore the fact that computers are not just black boxes to be programmed but physical devices with discrete components and connections between them. With its in-your-face hardware design, the Raspberry Pi hearkens back to the dawning of the computer era, when computer scientists had to be so intimately aware of how the machines were wired that they couldn’t write computer software without knowing which devices talk to which other devices and how the data had to be packaged to make that communication work. In fact, in the really early days, computer scientists used to program computers by physically rewiring them rather than writing code. While the Pi doesn’t make its users go that far, it still encourages them to consider the hardware as they use its operating system and develop applications to run on it.
Jayme Speva, an adjunct professor who has taught in the Master of Science in Information Security program for five years, created the course. Jayme is a computer specialist who works for IBM and has a passion for Linux, cyber security tools, and open-source software. He constantly looks out for new opportunities to learn interesting lessons in Computer Science. Jayme started experimenting with the Raspberry Pi about a year ago and gave a presentation to students on the cool things it can do as part of the Department’s Pi Day celebration on March 14. He wrote a book for the course that described several laboratory experiments he had the students perform during the weekend seminar. Jayme is an excellent teacher who conveys his unparalleled enthusiasm for computing like nobody else I know.
The Raspberry Pi is a full-fledged and highly capable computer system that occupies a single circuit board. It has an ARM 11 processor running at 700 MHz, a Videocore 4 graphics processing unit capable of running HD quality video, 512 MB of RAM, 2 USB ports, an Ethernet port, and a GPIO interface to connect with other devices such as microcontrollers and sensors. The video really is HD; in fact, we run our video board in the department hallway using a Pi. The Pi also includes an SD card from which it reads its operating system. Wanna try a new operating system? Simply plug in a different SD card. It couldn’t be simpler to play around with hardware, operating systems, applications, and how they all interact.
The Raspberry Pi can be ordered from several outlets, but Element14 is the primary distributor. There is also a very active online community where you can learn about new ways to use the Pi and connect it with other kinds of hardware. If you are a Computer Science student, or if you’re simply interested in learning more about computing, I can think of no better way to introduce yourself to this most fascinating of fields than to spend a few hours with the Raspberry Pi.