There’s no denying that, since launching in 2012, the Raspberry Pi mini computer has become a phenomenon in the technology world.
Created by British software developer Eben Upton, it's shipped over 22 million units and helped to establish the sub-$50 PC market. What's more, all profits are invested in digital learning initiatives globally.
For the best part of a decade, Upton has been working to transform STEM education and inspire the next generation of technology talent. But with Raspberry Pi continuing to break sales records, he believes it can go even further.
“A device that was originally conceived as a toy for kids is now finding its way into a wide range of industrial applications. Last year, more than half of our 6 million unit sales were into industrial or commercial applications,” he says.
“We're not going to stop until everyone in the world has access to a low-cost, high-performance PC, and every child has a chance to understand how their PC works, and to use that knowledge to secure a better life for themselves."
Teacher and children.RASPBERRY PI
In 2018, the technology skills gap is still a major challenge. Research claims there’ll be 800,000 unfilled IT roles in the UK alone by 2020, and the British Computer Society has suggested that the number of students taking computing courses will halve over the coming years.
Encouraging more youngsters to pursue computer science programmes is key to eradicating this global problem. While Upton admits that the lack of IT talent is still concerning, he says curriculums are beginning to improve.
“We're in a much better place than we were a decade ago. We’ve gone from having an ICT curriculum which focused on office skills to an extremely rigorous computing curriculum. There's been a lag in equipping teachers to deliver this new curriculum effectively, but the government is now making some substantial investments in rectifying this.”
At the same time, Upton believes that the general public is becoming more aware of the importance of STEM learning. He continues: “Outside of school, there has been both a proliferation of organized activities (Code Club and Coder Dojo are just two examples of this), and a broader sense in society, particularly among parents and children, that computing is worth pursuing.”
Tackling diversity in tech
Parent and child.RASPBERRY PI
To Upton, the real challenge is making the tech industry more inclusive – particularly when it comes to gender diversity. According to industry body Tech Nation, women in tech are outnumbered by men 4:1.
“The challenges we think about now are around diversity and inclusivity, and about how we make computing relevant and provide an opportunity for steady progression that keeps young people engaged,” he explains.
“We've felt for a while that one of our pieces of unfinished business is to ensure that the resurgence in interest in computing among young people is more balanced than the surge in the 1980s that I was part of: heavily male and middle-class.”
“We have some promising leading indicators: of attendees at Code Club (a program for 9-13 year olds), 41% are female, and a school in a disadvantaged area (as measured by the proportion of students on free school meals) is somewhat more likely to have a Code Club than one is a more affluent area.”
Although this is beginning to improve, Upton admits that more needs to be done. “There are specific techniques which have been established in the literature to improve girls' level of engagement.
“One example would be pair programming, an established software engineering technique whereby pairs of people sit together at a single machine and work to tackle a problem.
“More generally, there is evidence that by positioning programming as a tool for accomplishing other goals, rather than as an end in itself, you can increase participation not just among girls but across the board.”
He says the industry also has a responsibility to break age-old stereotypes. “It’s important not to set engineering and femininity up in opposition to one another.
“My friend Rosemary Francis, who runs the software engineering company Ellexus and is a member of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, was telling me the other day that people sometimes express surprise that she's a hardcore hacker who also likes to wear makeup and carry an expensive handbag.”
It’s fair to say Raspberry Pi has achieved a lot of great things in a relatively short space of time, but Upton reckons this is just the beginning. He concludes: “I've said I'll keep doing Raspberry Pi while it's still fun, which I guess means while I'm still learning things. After seven years I still am, and it still is. The biggest thing I've learned is that the scale of the commercial and the charitable opportunity for Raspberry Pi is limitless.”