November 23, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

A DIY Computer, plus Minecraft: The Piper Computer Kit teaches perseverance as well as engineering

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The first thing owners of the Piper Computer Kit will notice on opening the box is that it looks like constructing the machine is going to be work. Piper, in its package, is a disassembled computer, waiting for a curious, tenacious tween or teen to build it. Completed, it’s a rough laptop, with a body made of precisely cut wooden pieces, and a Raspberry Pi brain. The kit is designed to offer the rare opportunity to learn computer science from the inside out. Building a Piper computer is indeed a challenge. But then, so is learning how a computer works.

The construction experience involves two phases. First, the physical computer must be built. Once that has been assembled from the provided parts, users must turn the computer on and play through a series of Minecraft missions that instruct them how the Piper works and guide them through adding the remaining hardware. Building the Piper takes roughly two hours; working through all the Minecraft hardware missions can take as long as ten.

The fully assembled computer is a 3.5″ x 6.5″ x 11″ pine box with a 7″ LCD screen, a mouse, the Raspberry Pi, and a battery and speaker, both of which can be charged with a universal cord. The Raspberry Pi is mounted on an acrylic base that fits snuggly into notches cut into the bottom of the pine box. Smaller boxes that house accessories and the breadboard that will eventually hold the Piper’s buttons are part of the assembly as well. The kit includes buttons, switches, wires, LED lights, and a buzzer, all of which will be connected to the Piper over the course of the Minecraft missions.

On the software side, the Raspberry Pi included in the kit has an SD card that is loaded with eight Minecraft levels for children to work through. These specially designed hardware missions are a vital step in the computer’s construction. The building directions, essentially a poster of detailed blueprint-like diagrams that work in unison with numbers and pictures etched on the pieces, depict the steps to construct the body of the computer. The instructions for all the electronic elements, beginning with directional buttons, are within the game. Consequently, the Piper does not reach its full potential until the game is played. There is no way out but through.

Employing Minecraft as the medium for building the electronic components of the Piper is a clever, and effective, choice. Minecraft is naturally engaging, known to most children, and easy to learn for those unfamiliar with the platform. While the kit’s creators could have included more pictorial or written instructions for the hardware elements, teaching kids about how a computer works is served well by utilizing a game that allows them to virtually walk around inside the computer, interacting with the circuits they are creating, and learn about the science of computing in kid-friendly language. Minecraft provides a visual and experiential connection that written instructions could not. The game is intuitive, and the instructions are scaffolded in such a way that even those unfamiliar with Minecraft will be able to complete the missions.

HOW IT WORKS
Building the Piper is not easy, nor is it meant to be. Complexity is built directly into the design. Piper’s creators want children, and adults, to be challenged and even frustrated with the building process. Part of their mission is to create an experience that teaches perseverance and critical thinking along with technical skills. When builders reach the end of the instructions, they will find themselves with a handful of buttons and wires, without written directions for what to do next. Users will have to discover what to do with these pieces on their own.

Once Piper is built and the hardware missions are completed, children will have a functioning computer. The Raspberry Pi connects to Wi-Fi or Ethernet and is programmed with a web browser. The original Minecraft game is also available in both creative and challenge modes. Students can continue to learn to code on Piper or even use Minecraft to create designs that can be exported to a 3-D printer.

Keep in mind that Piper is the computer version of “roughing it.” Shutting down the computer incorrectly will cause problems with the Raspberry Pi code, and new updates to the software can cause headaches. Luckily, there is a robust community forum for Piper users, and the company is still small enough that technical help is swift and personal.

Piper Computer Kits are used in schools in classroom and maker space settings. The company recommends two students per kit ($299), a hefty price tag for a tool that can only be built once. However, flexibly priced sets are available for schools: Piper Classroom (3 Piper Kits, $847) and Piper School (10 Piper Kits, $2,600). These include extra resources such as spare parts, lesson plans, and professional development opportunities.

VERDICT
Constructing a Piper Computer Kit is a memorable STEM learning experience that builds in problem-solving and technical skills. The technical challenge combined with Minecraft is sure to keep kids motivated and engaged, and builders are guaranteed a moment of exquisite triumph when they press the power ­button for the first time and the machine works. That moment is what the maker movement is all about, and Piper embodies it completely.

Addie Matteson is a middle school librarian at Westminster Schools in Atlanta.

This article was published in School Library Journal's October 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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