Our verdict of the Piper Computer Kit STEM Learning Toy:
If you’re looking to kickstart your child’s STEM skills, this Raspberry Pi-powered, Minecraft-centric, feature-packed learning kit is a great option, although it is a bit pricey.
The Raspberry Pi is a great educational device, but in its bare-bones state this might not be immediately obvious.
Several companies have attempted to “fix” this shortcoming, repackaging the Pi as part of a more STEM-focused experience for children. They’ve managed it with varying levels of success, so what does Piper bring to the table?
The Ultimate DIY Computer Building Experience?
Well, this is more than just another Raspberry Pi and keyboard. The Piper describes itself as a “computer kit” and there is certainly a bit building involved to get this Raspberry Pi up and running.
The website is full of endorsements from users and even Apple founder Steve Wozniak enthusing over the Piper Computer Kit, which it claims is the “ultimate D.I.Y. computer-building experience.”
You’ll no doubt agree that this is a lofty claim.
However, the Piper Computer Kit has support from Stanford University, and was a Tech Toy of the Year 2018 finalist. It aims to teach your child the necessary critical thinking, engineering skills, electronics knowledge, foundation programming, and hands-on coding.
All in all, it seems like a little more than a Raspberry Pi in a wooden box. To find out if this is the case, I enlisted the help of my seven-year-old son.
The Piper Computer Kit ships in a standard cardboard box. It features a nice optical illusion on the side as you remove the main box from the sleeve—turning cogs. When the packaging is this good, you never quite know whether the product is going to disappoint or be awesome…
Initial impressions are drab in many ways. It’s basically a box full of wood, with a Raspberry Pi 3 even mounted on a plate of wood.
In fact, there’s wood everywhere.
In the 21st century, you might think “this is no place for wooden computers; it’s not 1977” and in many ways you’d be right.
However, the 7-inch display, mouse, breadboard (and two smaller ones), and brass fittings all fit together nicely, giving you:
- a closable wooden case with the display embedded in it
- a Raspberry Pi computer with access to the GPIO pins
- a mouse (no keyboard)
- a breadboard for mounting buttons, LEDs, etc
- a battery
In short, it’s exactly what it says: a computer kit. Designed for children to build, it even features an impressive set of instructions presented as a blueprint.
About the Raspberry Pi
Several versions of the Raspberry Pi have been released since 2012, and almost all of them continue to be available. This is due to their suitability for a range of purposes.
The Piper Computer Kit ships with the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B. This model was released in 2016 and features onboard wireless networking and Bluetooth. With four USB ports and an Ethernet port, there is also a standard HDMI connector, multipurpose TRRS audio/media port, and a USB power connector.
Inside the Raspberry Pi 3 you’ll find a quad-core 1.2Ghz processor, 1GB of RAM and a Broadcom GPU. These are combined into a single SoC (System on a Chip) to save space and make the computer more efficient.
A microSDHC slot is also provided, which is where the operating system loads from. The Piper Computer Kit features the Piper OS preinstalled on an 8GB card. This should be inserted into the Raspberry Pi before the computer is screwed into the box.
Also in the box is a 7-inch LCD HDMI display, a USB mouse, a portable Lithium battery, and a speaker. You’ll also find the various USB and HDMI cables needed to hook everything up, and plenty of switches, buttons, wires, and LEDs.
What Can You Learn With This?
It could be argued that the Raspberry Pi’s potential for educating young children has never been fully realized. Fortunately, Piper has proved that all that is needed is the right set of peripherals, components, and a battery pack.
Aimed at STEM/STEAM students aged 7-13, the Piper Computer Kit should improve science, technology, engineering, art, and math. These are the most important elements of learning in many western schools currently, due to shortcomings in these fields.
On a practical level, this means putting together circuits, playing a Minecraft-based game, and solving math and logic puzzles.
If that wasn’t enough, your child will gain some useful insight into how to construct a wooden computer case. In fact, working through this stage will help foster an engagement with the computer like you have never known before…
Building the Piper Raspberry Pi Computer
Time for some honesty; the Piper isn’t an easy build. My son Bruce is nearly 8, and the kit is aimed at 7-13-year olds. As such, there was some initial difficulty getting started.
Bruce is adept at Lego, Meccano, and other construction toys, so the principle of interlocking wooden components, screws, and nuts was not alien to him. After some early friction regarding the approach (blueprint or no blueprint?) he was able to establish a good rhythm, with dad standing by for assistance.
It took about two hours to build the breadboard box, bottom half of the case, and the lid. That’s not too bad going; I reckon the entire build was around three hours from start to finish. It’s easy to go wrong with an excited young engineer desperate to get his computer up and running, however.
Hopefully we both learned the importance of following the blueprint.
Certainly, once the screen was fitted into the lid, and the Raspberry Pi secured, it wasn’t long before the Piper was booted up. That’s when the real magic begins…
Booting Up and Getting Started
If the Piper battery is charged, you’ll be able to boot up the computer. Curiously, this is the only option; you cannot use the USB cable to power the Raspberry Pi and display. As such, it pays to keep the battery topped up overnight.
Once booted, you’ll see the Piper desktop environment and a video demonstrating what can be done with the device. At this stage, the computer needs connecting to your wireless network, which should be done via mouse.
It’s wise to check for updates before proceeding. Once this is done, the Raspberry Pi is rebooted and the journey begins…
The Minecraft element of the Piper Computer Kit is based around the adventures of Piperbot. This character and his friends are initially voiced by what seem to be children, which does seem to devalue the proceedings somewhat.
Whoever controls the Piperbot gets to embark on the missions, which begin with basic movement using the mouse. A few minutes later, however, and Piperbot is gaining some additional mobility thanks to the GPIO, breadboard, buttons, and connector wires.
Some kids might fly with this; however, Bruce ran into trouble. We found that accidentally clicking the mouse too many times exited the on-screen guide to connecting the breadboard to the Pi. Fortunately, it wasn’t the end of the world as the guide view (still within the Minecraft world) could be revisited.
Essentially what you have after the first 30 minutes is a button-based “wooden” game controller, with additional controls created on a per-mission basis on the smaller breadboards.
Electronics for Kids
Any child lucky enough to receive the Piper Computer Kit will have a whole world of electronics open to them.
Not only does the project box require building from scratch, the projects (which can be enjoyed individually as well as in the story mode) aid in the understanding of creating simple circuits and connections.
But what has Bruce learned from the experience of building and continuing to use his Piper Raspberry Pi? He tells me that he enjoyed building the box the most, and fitting everything together. But he also thought that being able to build his own controller was awesome, and likes making the various switches.
At 7, he’s at the younger end of the Piper target audience. As such, Bruce needed some encouragement and guidance in places, but ultimately enjoyed it.
And he’s absolutely opposed to sharing the Piper with his twin sister…
A Piper for Every Home and Classroom!
Reviewing the Piper Computer Kit, I thought giving it to my son to work through was the best option. But when I saw the blueprint, the wooden box components, the interlocking teeth, and the Raspberry Pi, it dawned on me just how awesome the kit is.
In short, it’s everything I would have wanted from a computer 30 years ago.
Since putting the Piper together, Bruce has split his time equally between the sandboxed Minecraft on his tablet, and the adventure on offer in his self-built little computer. Solving puzzles with wires and switches is proving a challenge that he relishes, and he’s loved every moment with the device.
Forget tablets and Chromebooks. If you want to get your children familiar with technology, start with the Piper Computer Kit.
Enter the Competition!