Fundamental knowledge of how computers work is essential for many future careers. For $300, the Piper Computer Kit promises to teach children computer science concepts. At that cost, it needs to be perfect. Is it? No. But it’s close.
I’ve spent a good deal of my career around computers. I’ve worked in computer repair, software development, and tech journalism. As such, my seven-year-old son is no stranger to technology. But I’ve run into a problem: thanks to devices like smartphones, tablets, and all-in-one desktops, he’s convinced that all screens are computers. Whether it’s the dumb TV in my bedroom or the monitor in my office, he can’t grasp why they can’t simply load up his favorite iPad app, an Xbox game, or stream Netflix.
I’ve tried explaining it to him, walked him through my desktop connected to the computer, but nothing ever clicked. That’s why I was excited to try out Piper’s computer kit. Piper shouldn’t be confused with Kano, which focuses heavily on coding and software development. Piper hits the other things, how hardware works, and how that hardware interacts with code. And it all starts with building a computer. Well, at least the shell of a computer.
I Can’t Believe He Built It Solo
The Piper Computer Kit arrives in pieces, and it’s up to you (or preferably your child) to assemble it. Piper says it aimed its computer kit at children eight and up, and my son only just turned seven. So I was somewhat worried the Piper kit would be too difficult for him. He does build Lego sets on his own, but this is a whole different beast. I thought I’d have to help at every stage, or worse, complete it when he grew bored.
I’m happy to say my fears were completely unfounded. I want to say that’s due to my son’s Lego experience, but a lot of credit goes to the company as well. The kit comes with a large Blueprint poster with clear illustrations and labels. The company labeled every piece according to the step it belongs to (1-1, 1-2, 1-3, etc.), and all screws and connectors come in labeled bags.
For the most part, I stayed hands-off. To start, I helped my son orientate pieces to the Blueprint, but he figured that out quickly as well. The only thing I did was sort the screws, and that was just to speed things along. My son connected the pieces, inserted nuts, and drove all the screws.
The process isn’t an exact computer build, though. Essentially, your child will build a shell that houses a Raspberry Pi 3, monitor, speakers, mouse, and cables. Since it’s a Raspberry Pi powering the computer, your child won’t insert ram, attach a hard drive, or connect fans. But that process (followed by the next steps I’ll get into later) finally got the difference between a monitor and computer to click for him—a big win in my department.
Most importantly, he stuck with it. I’ve purchased a lot of different STEM-focused projects (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in the past, and typically, he quickly grows bored of assembling gadgets. I usually finish on my own then pull him back in for “the good parts.” But that didn’t happen here. Despite the build process taking the better part of two hours, he stuck it out until the end. He was excited to see his progress and wanted to finish “his computer.”
No Keyboard is Good Thing—Mostly
Upon finishing the computer assembly, I was surprised to realize it came with a mouse but not a keyboard. The kit comes with a preformatted microSD card with the Raspberry Pi OS, Minecraft Education, and Piper’s software. We turned it on, and the screen didn’t work. I took it apart, reseated the cables, and the next time the screen worked. But the OS didn’t. One more restart, and everything was fine.
I mention all this because that level of finickiness reared its head frequently. Be prepared to restart the Raspberry Pi. Once it loaded up, it wanted to update, but that meant connecting to either Wi-Fi or ethernet. Wi-Fi calls for a password which calls for a keyboard.
Thankfully, Piper’s real computer hardware is a Raspberry Pi 3 (with 4 USB ports), which runs a version of Linux. I grabbed a wireless keyboard with USB dongle, connected it, input the password, and then started the update. That was annoying, but it’s also the last time you’ll need a keyboard. As long as it’s USB, any keyboard will work. Just make sure to disconnect it when you’re done.
That’s because once the game (Minecraft with lessons added) begins, your kid will build a controller. It’s fantastic. In a giant “Wow!” moment, the game instructed my son to connect two wires directly to the Raspberry Pi then touch them together. The character moved forward. During the build process, the blueprints had him create a breadboard enclosure with open slots. The game showed him how to connect the wires and buttons, and now he had a controller.
The kit comes with a second breadboard, and your child will use this connect switches, LEDs, and buzzers. The game includes a storyline: you are a robot on Mars, and it’s your job to stop an asteroid from destroying the Earth. You’ll travel to places, build tools, and solve puzzles to that end. Along the way, your child will connect new switches and lights to the breadboard to accomplish different tasks.
Teaching the How, But Not the Why
I do have a complaint about the lessons the Piper Kit teaches. When the game wants to throw a new switch or light in the mix, a video plays with basic steps of what to do. You can see the wires connecting a Raspberry Pi to the breadboard, and the switch or LED in its place. You follow along and make everything match.
But it doesn’t explain what a breadboard is. It doesn’t explain why you must use a particular Raspberry Pi GPIO pin. It doesn’t even clearly explain why you must insert the switches or LEDs into specific holes. My son counted the holes, followed the diagram, and it worked. So he has “the how.” But he didn’t understand “the why.” That seems like a miss to me. But I’m fairly certain Piper didn’t want to overload information.
And I have to give Piper credit. My son played on the system for hours. I had to pull him away from it; he didn’t want to stop. The very next day, the first thing he asked to do after school was “play my new computer.” He played for an hour more, and once again, I had to stop him. He had actual homework, after all.
That trend continues to this day. He enjoys playing the system; he likes that it’s Minecraft, which he’s played, and every time he accomplishes a new task like building a slider switch that extends a bridge, he cheers over his success.
So I’m left with an issue. The Piper Computer Kit is clearly a success. When the software hasn’t locked up again, requiring another reboot, that is. My son loves the thing, and he is learning from it. Finally, he understands the difference between a screen and a tablet.
But the Piper Computer Kit is $300, and that’s expensive. Very expensive. On a hardware level, it’s a Raspberry Pi, an admittedly nice LCD screen, some breadboards, and a dozen or two wood pieces. Nothing about it seems “cheap,” but it doesn’t feel like $300 either. But that doesn’t account for the total cost.
The Piper Kit includes a copy of Minecraft Education Edition, and a host of custom created lessons. Those include cut scenes with (really awful) voice acting. All that’s time and money too.
I think $300 is out of the realm of what a lot of people would be willing (or able) to spend on their child. And that’s a shame because the Piper Computer Kit is fantastic. Every kid should get to try this, and I mean that seriously.
Piper offers education pricing, and if you’re a teacher or school administrator looking for a great computer STEM project, I implore you to check into it. And if you’re a parent looking for a great gift and can afford to drop three Benjamins on a single present, go for it. Assuming you can’t or won’t spend that much on a single gift (which seems fair to me), then keep an eye on it. Should a sale come along that brings into the right price, jump on it.
I say that with confidence based on one fact alone: my son knows that review units usually go back to the manufacturer. And he’s been asking, with sadness in his voice, if today is his last day to play with Piper. Every day he wants one more day. That’s the mark of an excellent STEM project.
Here’s What We Like
- Fantastic Build Instructions
- Breadboards made easy
- Captivating lessons
And What We Don't
- Teaches How but not Why
- Unstable and finicky