Shaking up the curriculum with Raspberry Pi

Shaking up the curriculum with Raspberry Pi

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Today, the UK government backed recommendations made by the Hope Livingstone Review, Next Gen, which calls for computer science to replace the much-maligned Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in the national curriculum. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is looking to address the same problem from another angle with its "ultra-low-cost" computer, Raspberry Pi, by enabling even primary school children to understand the principles behind programming. We spoke Frontier Developments' head David Braben, who is heading up the foundation, about the state of UK education today and what Raspberry Pi can do to redress the balance.

Are there too many artists and too few programmers in game industry?
I’m not certain that’s the case. It depends what projects you’re trying to do. Also, bear in mind, when people are trained in those disciplines, what’s the range of jobs they’re qualified to do? The film industry is very hungry for technical artists, as is the game industry. We compete with them. And I also think that if you look at the skills distribution for a game we’ve just finished like Kinect Disneyland Adventures, the majority of that is artists. Everything from animating Mickey Mouse to lip sync for Buzz Lightyear – think of the scope of that game. The programming side of that is the same code throughout, but you have to do each different art thing, and all of it has to be created in parallel.

Frontier Developments' head and face of Raspberry Pi Foundation David Braben

Maybe the impression comes from lots of art-heavy games launching in a buggy state.
I agree. One of the good things is that there’s a blurring of art and programming, and an awful lot of what we do is script-based. What does Goofy do when you bring him a hat? How does he comment on your clothing? All of those sorts of things are blurred borderlines between programming and what we call content. It’s a different kind of person who creates that than who creates programming code. You’re essentially programming but in a very simple firebox that just affects that character. That’s what we would call a designer; designing how the story pans out.

I’m a huge fan of the Bethesda games and I’m really looking forward to playing Skyrim. One of the problems – and we see it as well – is out-of-order story. So a game like Kinect Disneyland Adventures has 100 hours from start to finish. Can you try out all the permutations of all the stories happening in parallel, in any order? It’s like Fallout 3. And that’s where these things come from. And when you put it out to millions of people, they will hit all of those permutations and for someone it won’t work. That’s a challenge that only really happens in this medium.

Is UK education up to speed with all this?
No. I think we’re terribly, terribly lacking in this country. At all three levels. At the primary level there’s very little technology teaching at all. At secondary level, there’s some but it’s very ICT-based, which turns people off terribly. The sad thing is that if you look at the profile, in the ‘90s we saw a flurry of girls coming into programming. And that died back again, which is a real shame. Frontier Developments is about 15 to 20 per cent female, which is shockingly low. Because I’d hope it’d be 50/50. We’ve actually got a higher ratio than most other places, but we just don’t have girls applying, that’s the problem.

I've given lectures at universities where the entire classroom is male, or there'll be one girl sitting in the corner. I think it’s become like this for lots of different reasons. The whole geek/nerd thing, which really annoys me: it's based on prejudice, lack of understanding, isolation of a whole cohort of the population – and I probably count in that group. Why is there that vehemence, that hatred for people who are keen on playing with technology? At one extreme you've got people who are verging on Asperger's, but it's something you can engage with. There's a lot of skills there, a lot of possibilities. Trying to break down that divide could actually be a really healthy thing.