DHOUR CHOUEIR, Lebanon: In the hallway of Dhour Choueir High School, perched high up in the craggy hills of Mount Lebanon, teenagers cluster around a fist-sized computer chip with wires protruding from various sides.
On the attached screen, a monkey walks from side to side catching bananas that fall from the sky, with a speech bubble that says “yummy” appearing every time he succeeds.
In the middle of the crowd, a 17-year-old explains how it works. But he’s not talking about how to play the game, he’s talking about how to make it.
This is Raspberry Pi, an innovative new education tool that can teach children as young as 5 how to create computer code and program, which lets them create anything from video games to music. The device costs $25 – way less than a computer, laptop or tablet – and all you need to plug in is a screen (for example, a TV), a keyboard, a mouse and some power.
Created in Britain by a group of men who feared the younger generation was losing the ability to control the technology mushrooming around it, Raspberry Pi has snowballed from an idea in 2006 into a movement that is taking the world by storm.
With the help of UNICEF, the International Education Association, the Education Ministry and the Muna Bustros Foundation, Raspberry Pi was officially launched on Friday in the Middle East as part of the Pi For Learning program.
“This is the future,” said 17-year-old Ryan Loukih, a student at Dhour Choueir High School. “The whole world is going toward coding and programming, and Raspberry Pi simplifies it so that everyone can use it. There are endless possibilities.”
The pilot project in the Lebanese public school in Dhour Choueir teaches students how to use a visual programming language called Scratch, and the older students that have been experimenting with it over the last few months were eager to show off the fruit of their work.
“This game is like a basic version of pong,” explained Ian Saba, 17, pointing to a screen where a ball was bouncing between two horizontal lines – essentially a game of ping pong seen from above.
“With coding, we can control the rules and bend them to our will, so if he is winning,” Saba smiled and gestured to his work partner, “I can press a button and change the direction of the ball with no warning.”
For IT teacher Viana Mansour, the introduction of the devices to her computer lab has been revolutionary.
“They thought that computers were all about social media sites like Facebook and so on, now they know that they can make their own games, animations, music – anything.”
“Children are way more excited to come to IT now.”
As well as being a stimulating change for Dhour Choueir High School’s students, the introduction of Raspberry Pi to the institution is also breaking new ground in the country and the wider region.
“Everyone in the world is looking at this experiment,” Candace Johnson, an American angel investor and high-profile telecommunications entrepreneur, said to those gathered at the launch. “I built my own transistor radio when I was 6, and it put me in a place where I was able to build the world’s largest satellite system.”
“If we give young people the ability to code, they will build things in the future that we can’t even imagine now.”
This message was echoed by UNICEF’s new innovation specialist, James Cranwell-Ward, a key driver behind the agency’s plan to bring Raspberry Pis to schools in neglected parts of Lebanon.
“You could potentially give birth to and establish a whole generation of technologists who could go on to build the next Facebook,” he told The Daily Star.
UNICEF is particularly hoping to target school-aged Syrian refugees, some 300,000 of whom are receiving no education at all because of the lack of capacity, resources and funds.
“There needs to be some sort of out-of-the-box solution to fill that need,” Cranwell-Ward said.
Using Raspberry Pi, he added, is both cheaper and more engaging than school textbooks.
“We will be using the RP as a vehicle to teach basic numeracy, Arabic and science,” he said. “The cost of an RP kit is low [around $100] and includes a screen, keyboard and mouse, everything you need for a learning terminal. The cost of that is far less than printing, shipping and transporting a textbook.
“You also don’t need the Internet ... it’s all set up to be done offline.”
When it comes to education, for both Lebanese and refugees, it seems innovation has become the name of game.