What Do Raspberry Pi and Learning to Code Have in Common? (Hint: 1975)

Think about your laptop, iPad, or smartphone. Are they toys, or something used for entertainment? Maybe they’re appliances, with internal components that work when you push a button without your knowing why. What about when a child thinks of computers—does he or she see a toy, an appliance, or something else?

Some experts have argued that, as microcomputers become more advanced, affordable, and widely available, youth are beginning to demystify the computers and apps that have made life so “magical.”

It seems we’ve come full circle, back to the beginning of PCs.

Picture 1975. A group of intelligent and ambitious electronic enthusiasts meet up to build some of the very first computer operating systems. The meetings of what was then titled the “Homebrew Computer Club” provided a creative outlet for future tech moguls like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple.

“Personal computers started off quite literally as personal, with hobbyists cobbling together their own machine in garages, dorms, and basements,” the online Computer History Museum explained. “Enthusiasts, often working from kits, formed clubs to share tips, scoured electronics magazines, tinkered into the night—and loved every exciting minute.” Ultimately, these hobbyists cultivated a thriving Silicon Valley subculture of what we often refer to today as interest-driven makers.

As TIME Magazine editor and longtime tech expert Harry McCracken recounted, many of the first microcomputers that arose from the Homebrew Club were sold in mom-and-pop computer stores like the Byte Shop, which became the first official Apple retailer.

In effect, Homebrew members were the first coders and hackers. They quickly learned how to write the most effective coding language of that time, called BASIC, and how to manipulate devices internally.

It wasn’t long before Radio Shack began producing one of the first plug-and-play computer models, the TRS-80. These models did not require any physical construction, but were simple enough to enable tinkerers, like McCracken, to write their own programs. “I spent thousands of hours sitting in front of TRS-80s, cranking out programs in BASIC,” he recounted. “I knew the machine inside and out, in a way that’s impossible with modern computers.”

Suddenly, computers had been reduced to objects—something that could be bought for a set price, at any chain store, in any American suburb. Chief Scientist of the DaVinci Science Center David Smith discussed this shift in a recent interview.

“I think we’ve gone through a really interesting cycle with personal computing. In the beginning, if you wanted a personal computer you had to build it from a kit and were very much working with the guts of the thing,” he said. “Then, the computer became an appliance—you expected to go to a store, buy it, maybe download some basic software, and expect it to work.”

Smith said that only now are we finally moving back to a time when people are writing code, rather than relying on what’s being sold to them. He attributed this trend to the influx of low-cost, accessible tools, like the $25 Raspberry Pi microcomputer.

The UK-registered charity began designing these affordable motherboards in 2006, after a team of developers noticed the same shift Smith described. “Something had changed the way kids were interacting with computers,” explained the founders on the organization’s website. “A number of problems were identified: the colonization of the Information and Communication Technology curriculum with lessons on using Word and Excel, or writing webpages; the end of the dot-com boom; and the rise of the home PC and games console to replace the Amigas, BBC Micros, Spectrum ZX and Commodore 64 machines that people of an earlier generation learned to program on.”

While they note that the Raspberry Pi won’t necessarily address problems like outdated curriculums or financial crises, they do say that the impetus behind their cause was, largely, to encourage kids to code. “We felt that we could try to do something about the situation where computers had become so expensive and arcane that programming experimentation on them had to be forbidden by parents; and to find a platform that, like those old home computers, could boot into a programming environment.”

Smith reasoned that the affordability of Raspberry Pi and its competitors, which continue to grow, have made the microcomputer a real game-changer for computer programming education. Now, computers are entirely accessible for parents and teachers to integrate into homes and classrooms. “As the computing power becomes more accessible and cheaper, it becomes something that kids could play with and learn from,” said Smith. “When you can buy a $20-$30 microcomputer you can solder pins to its motherboard, and if you mess up you’re only out twenty bucks. You’re not going to do that with thousand-dollar personal computers.”

He’s right. Thanks to affordable coding devices and programs, 13-year-old Aita has dreams of becoming a computer scientist who helps create new health care technologies, and this 11-year-old learned how to write her own games using Scratch, a programming language designed for kids.

Just like the young Steve Jobs, youth have more and more opportunities to learn computer programming, which not only helps to demystify computers but also encourages them to become innovators and inventors. And, as the Homebrew Computer Club did for the early days of computers, Learning Labs can serve as an influential outlet for kids to explore the many possibilities computers and coding can offer, particularly amid an emerging STEM crisis.

As David Rushkoff explained in his book “Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commandments for a Digital Age,” teaching youth computer programming is more of a necessity than a choice. “As we move into an increasingly digital reality, we must learn not just how to use programs but how to make them,” he warned. “In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software.”

By Kelsey Herron