Piper: Learning Electronics with Raspberry Pi and Minecraft

Raspberry Pi
Piper: Learning Electronics with Raspberry Pi and Minecraft

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There’s no doubt that platforms like Raspberry Pi have made learning about computers and electronics more accessible for youth. But going beyond accessibility, how do you motivate and encourage young people to explore the possibilities that these platforms provide? The team behind Piper aims to do exactly that with their Raspberry Pi-based learning platform. The key to motivation and encouragement comes from an almost obvious source: Minecraft. Kids all over the world already invest countless hours building and playing within the popular 3D gaming environment. Piper, developed by Mark Pavlyukovskyy, Alex Stokes, and Shree Bose, uses a modified version of Minecraft running on Raspberry Pi to walk players through creating circuits and interacting with them.

Piper is currently under development, but the team is doing extensive hands-on testing in schools and at museums. I caught up with them at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose a couple of weeks ago where they were letting museum-goers give Piper a test drive.

Matt Richardson: First of all, thanks for sitting down to talk with me. Why don’t you start by telling me about Piper.

Mark Pavlyukovskyy: Piper is a hacker toolbox to teach kids how to build electronics while playing Minecraft. It’s also an on boarding process for people who want to get in the maker movement and who want to be engineers.

MR: Why Minecraft?

Alex Stokes: Kids love Minecraft and a lot of them play it. So we want to take something that kids love, like Minecraft, and then use that to the advantage of getting them interested in the maker movement. So you can play Minecraft with the Raspberry Pi circuits and it’s a match made in heaven.

MR: Can you tell me about how you all came together to create Piper?

Shree Bose: So I actually met Mark a long while back, a few summers ago. We were both working at the NIH and Mark knew Alex — they were both teaching themselves how to code at the time. I thought that was really cool. I had actually done a lot of biology research in high school and that’s what we were all doing at the same time. I had won the Google Global Science Fair in high school and then I got to travel around talking to kids.

Whenever kids came up to me and they’s say, “I am interested in biology. What do I do?” I could always say find a mentor. Find something you’re excited about and follow that. But when it came to technology, there was no sort of answer to say this is how you can get excited about tech. You can get your hands dirty with it. There was no tool like that I can tell them about. So when I was talking to Mark and Alex, we started talking about creating that sort of tool. That led to the first iteration of Piper with a little web programming game.

Then when we went around and talked to kids, they’d say, “This is really cool and all, but do you have anything like Minecraft? We really like Minecraft. That’s what we want.”

So that’s how this idea came about and I think it’s incredible in terms of what sort of potential it holds for the future and we’re excited about the project itself. We’re excited about Piper but we’re also even more excited about what an entire generation of kids will learn to do with it and what they can make it do. We think that’s going to be pretty awesome in the future. So we will see.

MR: So far you’ve been testing it out. What have you been finding in your testing with it?

MP: A few things. I mean initially we actually started off as something completely different. As Shree said, it was actually a little computer teaching kids how to build HTML websites. We liked the idea of having kids build something with their hands, and then through the testing we learned kids like to build things. They also like to play Minecraft. So we thought maybe we can combine those two, allow them to play Minecraft and also build physical things.

As we progressed, we’ve just gotten great feedback on what to improve about the game, what to change about the physical design of the box, what parts don’t make sense and what things really excite the kids, what gets them really excited.

SB: I think one of the most exciting parts is how like enthusiastic kids are about actually building the parts physically especially in a world where they’re constantly playing these software games and they’re constantly in a virtual world. They get so excited about building on this physical plane, so that’s awesome to be able to see that it bodes well for the future.

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MR: Do you have any stories from your testing?

AS: Well, I mean we saw a kid here today. He played maybe the first level and then he says, “OK, I kind of see how this works.” He played the next level and it was a little harder and so he’s getting frustrated. He’s says, “Oh, how do I do this? What do I do? What do I do?” So he kept trying. He kept trying and then when he got it, he says “Yes!” and like puts his hands up in the air and he’s super excited.

We see this in schools that we’ve been in: once the kids kind of get it and understand, then they play the game and it’s something that really excites them because we’re using Minecraft first off and then we’re doing something really new with it in a way that they really have an experience.

MR: What about Raspberry Pi? Was it a forgone conclusion, using Raspberry Pi? And if not, why did you end up choosing it?

AS: The Raspberry Pi is really popular in the maker community. It’s accessible for us but also accessible for the people who are interested in using Piper. It’s fairly inexpensive and there’s a good software stack for it. So it makes a lot of sense for our prototype, at least for now.

MP: It makes sense in terms of the cost versus what it can do for the cost. For $35 they can run Minecraft right here on their laps and there’s no other board that can do that right now.

MR: What’s the timeline going forward in terms of development and release of Piper?

MP: Over the next few months, we’re improving user experience: the physical experience of playing with it, improving the levels, improving the tutorial, improving what you can actually make from it, and the projects. Then we want to launch a Kickstarter, probably around February or March 2015. We think Kickstarter is the appropriate platform for us since it’s for makers and people who want to have other people participate in their creations.

MR: How will you know when Piper is a success?

MP: I think whenever we give it to kids and then we all of a sudden — we’re going to have a platform where they can share their creations. When we see kids creating with it, things that we never have thought of, that’s going to be our measure of success.

To find out more about Piper, see http://build.withpiper.com/.

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Matt Richardson is a San Francisco-based creative technologist and Contributing Editor at MAKE. He’s the co-author of Getting Started with Raspberry Pi and the author of Getting Started with BeagleBone.

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