What is a Raspberry Pi?

A question Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 13.14.28often asked by teachers, children and parents. So many people have heard about Pi and are keen to give it a go, but just aren’t sure where to start.


Let’s start with what a Raspberry Pi is. In simple terms, it is a fully functioning computer – you need to add an SD card to act as its brain, a monitor to see what it’s thinking and a mouse/keyboard to control it, but that’s it. In order to make it work, you do need your SD card to have an operating system installed – the Pi doesn’t use Windows or MacOS, but has it’s own OS called Raspbian, which is similar to most graphical user interfaces (GUI). Raspbian is fairly simple to install onto a memory card, but it’s probably easier to buy one that has it preloaded if it’s your first time giving it a go.


The Raspberry Pi was invented to put affordable coding into the hands of young people. However, to me, the big draw are the 40 little pins known as GPIO pins (general purpose in-out). These pins can have any number of inputs (buttons, sensors etc.) and outputs (LEDs, buzzers) attached to them which can easily be controlled with some simple code in Scratch, Python or a large selection of other languages which also work on the Pi. As a primary school teacher, I can easily attach a set of traffic lights to the pins and quickly get my pupils lighting them up using a few lines of code in Scratch.


There are lots of great ways to get started with a Raspberry Pi – the simplest option is to buy an all in one kit from somewhere like Pimoroni who sell all in one kits with everything you need, including a case. If you already have a mouse, keyboard and HDMI monitor then the Essentials kit is a great place to start, only make sure you buy a coupé case so that you still have easy access to the pins.

Another option is to look at a pi-top, an all-in one pi solution either in a portable, self powered laptop version or a powered desktop version that needs your own mouse and keyboard, but still cuts down on the need for a separate monitor and lots of cables. Personally, I love the CEED, the desktop version because it is easy to store, easy to use and is a great classroom solution to avoid having cables everywhere – it’s also quite affordable compared to buying the parts separately, but I think it’s worth having a play and making up your own mind.


The nice thing about using the Pi is that there are loads of great resources available on the Raspberry Pi website suggesting projects. There are also loads of educators sharing cool ideas for teaching. Everything is really easy to get hold of and children are really excited by having a physical output to their coding – the difference between on screen effects and real life LEDs and buttons is huge and can be a great motivator. Check out the Raspberry Pi website for some simple getting started resources or look here for some simple resources for physical computing using the pi for both Scratch and Python.

I recommend checking out Carrie Anne Philbin’s book Adventures in Raspberry Pi as a great starting point for understanding how to use the Pi in a simple way.


There are lots of current models of Raspberry Pi available – the best model for the classroom is the 3B as that comes with built in wifi and bluetooth and I find having wifi is pretty useful when using the pi, although it’s not essential. You do need internet access if you’d like to update your Pi to the latest software.

Raspberry Pi Family Photo

Raspberry Pi Family Photo CC-BY-SA 4 RasPi.TV https://raspi.tv/rpifamily

Depending on what you are doing, you may want to have your students ‘build’ a Raspberry Pi by connecting all of the cables together to help them understand better how a computer works, however, you may want a kit like the pi-top that makes life a bit easier for you in your classroom.

Feel free to get in touch if you would like any more information about using a Raspberry Pi in your classroom.


Former primary school teacher, computing coordinator, maths teacher and real-life geek girl, Cat is enthusiastic about getting teachers and children interested in coding and computing any way she can. She is a Raspberry Pi Certified Educator, Apple Distinguished Educator, Google Certified Educator and CAS Master Teacher and in her spare time performs in her local amateur theatre group.

Cat also founded Coding Evening for teachers, a network of social events to encourage teachers and community members to get together and share best practice for computing teaching.