Raspberry Pi: Meeting tomorrow’s computer geniuses at PA’s UK schools competition

If you ever doubted the Raspberry Pi’s power to inspire a new generation of coders, wandering around London’s Institute of Engineering and Technology yesterday would quickly dispossess you of this misconception.[gallery:2]

PA’s Raspberry Pi competition is now in its fourth year, celebrating the creative genius of young minds when given a £100 budget and a Raspberry Pi. The students from schools around the UK clearly worked as teams, but individual flair often showed, with some clearly favouring engineering, others coding, and more still with the gift of the gab: a bright future in tech marketing on the horizon one day.[gallery:31]

But that day could be a while away yet, at least for the students in the youngest category. The prizes are divided into three age groups and, given the youngest coders are still in primary school, they’re firmly in the “coding for fun” camp. As someone 20 years senior of the youngest designers present, it’s simultaneously inspiring and dispiriting that the children already understand more computer code than I ever will.[gallery:10]

The winners of the group – Egglescliffe CE Primary School – had come up with a simple two-player colour-matching game, where players had to hit paper plates as quickly as they could according to a randomised sequence onscreen. I was, I’m ashamed to say, roundly beaten by the young student who showed me the game, despite having a clear two foot height advantage.[gallery:8]

Runners-up in this category included a Minion-themed boxing game – where students from St Mary’s CE Primary School had equipped a couple of Minion inflatables with flex sensors in the arms to detect punches – and my personal favourite: the drum selfie machine. This was the work of Daviot Primary School, a tiny rural highland institution of just 17 students, and included five ice-cream lids equipped with sensors shaped into a makeshift “drumkit” that would take a selfie of the drummer as they hit the “cymbals”, capturing subjects at their most showboaty.[gallery:17]

As you’d expect, a leap from primary to secondary education provided an advance in sophistication to match, and the 11-16 level turned the complexity up a notch. The winners – Wick High School – had built a smartphone-controlled robot specifically designed to record rugby conversions. They couldn’t tell me exactly how long the battery would last, but long enough for a full match, I was assured. The large pink object on the back is a 3D-printed rugby ball, in case you’re wondering: pink because the all-female team wanted to encourage their fellow ladies into STEM careers, apparently.[gallery:32]

The two runners-up, Lavant House School and Tanbridge House School, both went with a fitness angle. In Lavant’s case, this was “Whack-a-Pi”, a Raspberry Pi-based whack-a-mole game, where players have to stamp on floor sensors in time to the instruction. Despite having worked on the project since October, the team clearly weren’t tired of it, listing a whole host of extra functions they intended to add, including a scoring system and lights built into the actual pads.[gallery:19]

Tanbridge had gone for something less gamified, and more fitness-focused. Based on a newspaper article explaining the merits of five minutes’ exercise per day, the team had coded a Raspberry Pi to read a £31 Garmin heart-rate monitor as the system guided the subject through various exercises. The results were then output to an Excel spreadsheets, and given more time, the team wanted to integrate text reminders for volunteers to exercise.[gallery:21]

Finally, there was the sixth-form category, which again was won by a team pursuing the fitness angle. Highgate School’s team had come up with “PiTime”, an infrared sensor and camera designed to accurately time runners crossing the finishing line in track races. According to the team, professional equipments can cost well into the hundreds of pounds so this device costing just £60 over the price of the Raspberry Pi is something of a bargain.[gallery:4]

Homewood School and Sixth Form Centre’s team made a convincing sales pitch for their “SportTrax”, even using Raspberry Pi Zeros for their electronic name tags. The device measures sporting activities by telling someone how fast they’ve gone, how far they’ve traveled and how high they’ve climbed.[gallery:27]

A couple of sixth formers from Riddlesdown Collegiate brought the event full circle with their entry: a Dance Dance Revolution-style game using a dissected old PS2 dance mat from eBay. Although not necessarily as sophisticated as their rivals, this was quite deliberate: the blueprint was intended to be easily replicated by curious primary-school students, starting them on a career in game building.[gallery:5]

And judging from my time at the show, this won’t be a problem. The children I spoke to showed an infectious level of enthusiasm and took a justifiable pride in their work. Children have always had imagination in spades, but the bar to entry for coding has always been a touch high. The Raspberry Pi changes this, and means a whole generation of children have a shot at making their ideas come to life. That’s something definitely worth celebrating, and PA’s annual competition does that in style.[gallery:0]

READ NEXT: Inspired? Read about the best Raspberry Pi projects you can build right now

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