pi-top co-founder, Jesse Lozano speaks out on RPi for makers and educators

February 7, 2017 | 11:07
"pi-top is a modular laptop you build yourself" says Jesse Lozano, pi-top co-founder. "It’s the perfect tool to help you start learning how to code, create awesome devices, and take your knowledge to the next level."​
Elektor asked him a few questions about pi-top products.

How did you get the idea to develop and produce a DIY laptop for the Raspberry Pi?
[...] The main aim was to create a device that simplifies use of the Raspberry Pi for makers and educators in a laptop form factor but also to keep true to the Raspberry Pi by allowing open access to the board for lots of fun physical computing applications.

It really was a solution to a common problem with Raspberry Pi learning — how do I actually use one and how do I actually learn from one. Over the years we have added hundreds of hours of learning content to our operating system, and over 500 schools and hundreds of code clubs use the device as a great STEM learning machine.

The Modular Rail with the special Add-ons is a great way to expand the pi-top in an easy way. Which Add-ons are available and are you planning more?
The modular rail is our way of breaking out the GPIO pins in an easy and fun way for users to do all sorts of physical computing learning in the pi-top platform. Currently you can get two great add-on boards:
  1. pi-topPROTO is a super-charged prototyping board for pi-top and pi-topCEED permitting the user to build and connect electronic add-ons to their device and any Raspberry Pi ‘HAT’. It’s possible to design and run robots, make traffic light systems with LEDs, even build a heart rate monitor that students can test on their classmates. pi-topPROTO is a great tool to teach physical computing.
  2. pi-topSPEAKER [...] can be added to pi-top or pi-topCEED. Up to three speakers can be attached [...]. The speaker is a quality little board that lets you add a voice to your pi-top and use Sonic PI to it’s fullest extent [...].
In the future we will have some exciting boards coming out [...]! Stay tuned for BETT 2017 where we will be unveiling our newest add-on board!

The pi-top comes with a special version of Raspbian Jessie, called pi-topOS. What’s so special about it? Do you advise more experienced users to use another OS?
pi-topOS is an operating system overlay which improves out-of-the-box experience, providing users with a familiar interface and making the use of a Raspberry Pi a fun and accessible experience. We have now spent over two years developing the pi-topOS platform and apart from the 100’s of hours of curriculum-aligned learning included on the OS, we think the user experience is potentially a serious advantage of our OS. In our next update [...] everyone will see the most polished pi-topOS ever to be released. [...]  
In terms of experienced users — we tailor our OS towards learning and yeah we have some fantastic software integrated into the OS like pi-topCODER, pi-topCLASSROOM and other learning aspects baked in but as an OS it really is quite nice to use and has no limitations built in. [...]

The pi-top is an ideal tool for STEM education in classrooms. It is already quite popular in the UK. Is it also used in classrooms elsewhere in Europe?
pi-top is indeed one of the best STEM tools available on the market at the moment. In fact we have been nominated for two BETT awards, the first being best Digital Device and the second being Edtech Start-up Company of the Year. BETT is the largest Educational Trade show in Europe [...].
We have proven very popular in the UK and USA where we typically onboard several new schools every week now into the pi-top ecosystem — across Europe our most popular countries are Germany, France and the Scandinavian countries. We are humbled by the widespread popularity of our devices and it really makes us smile as a team to know people from all over the world are using and learning with a pi-top device.

Most customers in the Elektor Store are seasoned electronics engineers. Will they buy a pi-top for their children of do they want to play with it themselves? How can engineers use the pi-top?
We at pi-top are a big team of engineers as we actually design every element of our products in house, so in fact we may look a lot like your typical customer! We use the Pi-top ourselves to create some pretty amazing personal projects — some of which have turned into lesson plans, for example creating and coding a heart rate monitor. So it is a great dev platform for an experienced engineer.
What we focus on however is bringing new students into the fold of STEM education. Aside from school sales many pi-tops go into the hands of parents interested or experienced in engineering and STEM based professions. There is something really special about using a
pi-top with your child to create something that is fun but also actually teaches real world coding and STEM skills. pi-top is all about inspiring and teaching people the skills to be as creative as they want to be, using typically difficult to teach STEM skills. The world is what you make of it, and with the pi-top we aim to show students that, but parents who are so inclined might find themselves fighting for time on their kids' pi-top.
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