“Obviously, Raspberry Pi came from a realisation of a very serious problem”, Upton says.
Upton is acutely aware of the tech skills shortage that will affect the UK’s position on the world stage; he created the popular, credit card-sized computer microcomputer four years ago in a bid to get children excited about computing.
He says: “Look where the tax money comes from in the UK. When we get old enough to draw a state pension, we want to still have a functioning first world economy. But all the high value jobs need some form of engineering skills.”
Computing skills offer more than a path to becoming a game developer or software engineer, Upton says. They offer a structured approach to thinking that equips children to do other jobs - and recognition of this is key to making it a subject of choice amongst students.
Girls are noticeably absent from technical roles. However, “increasing computing participation in women is like grabbing the lowest of low hanging fruit”, Upton says.
He believes that there is a huge amount of progress being made, but the simple act of ‘pink-washing’ computing to attract girls is the wrong way to go.
“There is a lobby where people think ‘I’ll just paint it pink’, but in practice, we have found that generally girls are slightly less interested in computing for its own sake. In fact, it is only a small population of children - and I was on of these - that find computing intrinsically fascinating as it is. To make computing relevant we need to help all children [boys too] recognise that it enables you do something else, that you find interesting.”
The slippery slope to becoming an engineer
Upton, the child of an English language scholar, said that his first memory of computing lies with the BBC Micro, a product of the broadcaster's computing project in the early 1980s, and a overwhelming desire to beat his classmate.
“I had a friend at school who could program in basic and I couldn’t. I hated that. I wanted to be better at programming than him.
“The important thing is with platforms like Raspberry Pi and the BBC Micros, that there was never a day where we thought ‘I’m going to be an engineer’ but somehow you slide down the slippery slope and wake up one day and you are one”, Upton jokes.
The Pi foundation is currently working with Oracle to push 1,000 weather station kits - powered by Pi - to schools so children can predict the weather using data from sensors.
Projects like this, and other citizen science initiatives in schools, are some of Upton’s favourite ways to see the makerboard used.
Although, he adds, he has been known to chase down balloons falling from the sky in Oxfordshire fields - with shotgun wielding farmers - all in pursuit of a Pi.
Hobbyists the world over have begun sending their Raspberry Pis into the atmosphere to get a photo of the edge of space, he explains, and chase a GPS signal to find them when gravity gets the better.
“It’s good fun", he says.
The weather station kit will retail at no more than £100 for schools to purchase once all the freebie kits have been taken.