Sharing thoughts and ideas about teaching computing in school
On 11th February 2012, we opened our school on a freezing cold Saturday morning to 365 children, parents, teachers, developers, computer scientists and more for an engaging and inspiring experience that was the first Hack To The Future event. The aim was to use the digital creators of today to inspire the digital creators of tomorrow. We couldn’t find a De Lorean vehicle with enough capacity for 365 time travellers, so we used our school building instead.
Just 8 months later, we did it all over again, this time changing some of the features from the last event and adding an additional challenge. The additional challenge this time was that we only had 3 weeks to organise the event. Yes, you read it correct first time, only three weeks notice. Our school has 5 ‘Extended Learning Days’ throughout the year, occasions on which the whole school timetable is suspended to allow for activities to take place that are not usually practical within a normal school day. This time it was the turn of the ICT team to host 180 Year 10 pupils for the day. Unlike the February event which attracted 365 people from all over the country, this event was just for the 180 pupils in our Year 10.
As well as a group of GCSE Computing and a group of GCSE ICT, all of Year 10 also follow the Cambridge Nationals Award as a core course. The method of delivery we have chosen for teaching the Cambridge National Award does not currently offer the majority of our pupils any opportunities for computing or programming, so the plan was that this extended learning day would help cater for that need. The aim of the day was to inspire our pupils to see computing and digital creation as an exciting and viable option for further study or career choice.
Once we agreed the decision to go ahead and run the Hack To The Future event, the biggest challenge seemed to me to organise sufficient visitors with just 3 weeks notice. Luckily, in the next few days, I had some existing plans to attend some events and these would help recruit volunteers. It was also a huge help that The Guardian Teacher Network offered to help promote awareness of the event. One crucial element was setting up a public Google document for planning the event that anyone could contribute to. This would allow people to contribute their thoughts and ideas.
Despite attending 3 events in 5 days, after 1 week I had only attracted one volunteer. This was far short of the minimum of 25 I calculated. It was time to start considering Option B; cancelling the event and making alternative plans.
Then with around 10 days before the event, we received an avalanche of volunteers. It started with Carl from Edge Hill University who asked if he could bring around 25 student teachers of ICT. After that, it just went crazy, so much so that on the day we had 60 adult volunteers in total. While this sudden surge in interest was fantastic, it brought additional organisational challenges; parking, catering and child protection. For example, we needed to ensure that our adult visitors were not allowed to move around school unaccompanied and that pupils were constantly supervised by our teaching staff.
In all, our volunteers offered seven different workshops all lasting 1 hour each, although pupils only experienced 5 of these. We kept the children in their registration groups and moved the groups to designated rooms at workshop changeover, timetable here. A few days before I recorded a quirky video message on YouTube with information for our pupils.
This workshop works much like speed-dating with small groups of pupils meeting a different digital creator every 5 minutes or so. Our geeks were web developers, games developers, software developers, a chemical scientist, games design students, a computer scientist and an app developer. I was particularly pleased that we had a high proportion of female geeks represented.
Torsten Stauch of Appshed ran a workshop based around using the Appshed online app creator. Under Torsten’s guidance, pupils created their own social media app called ‘AppBook‘. I was thrilled that Torsten, a non-teacher offered to lead these workshops himself. Within just 45 minutes, pupils with no previous experience of using AppShed had created their own app and added various functions to their app including geo-location features.
Some of the workshops placed more emphasis on hardware development than software. In his Shrimping workshop, Cefn demonstrated how to build a small computer based on Arduino for £3. Cefn has made this a focus of his PhD work at Lancaster University. In the same way that Torsten is trying to make app development more accessible, Cefn’s aim is to make hardware projects more achievable with the minimum of components.
During this workshop, lead by a team of Edge Hill University student teachers, pupils learnt how networks are contructed. Rather than use computer hardware to build the networks, they constructed models with balloons, string and sticky notes. This workshop was based around materials from CS Unplugged, a library of free downloadable materials for teaching the principles of computing science without a computer.
Compared to some of the other workshop titles, ‘binary counting’ does not usually conjure up the most exciting images. However, this proved to be a very engaging workshop for pupils as they developed understanding of binary and then competed against other teams to prove that they could count in binary. I particularly liked the bibs they used as props to turn 5 boys into a binary counting machine.
I’m so used to talking about Arduinos that I forget many others have never heard of them. Many pupils asked me “What’s Arduino?”, pronouncing it in many different ways. This workshop with Edge Hill student teachers put pupils into teams to discover what you can do with an Arduino. Of course, it bore some similarities to the Shrimping workshop that Cefn was leading, except in this one the Arduinos were already built and pupils were invited to build projects with them.
In this workshop, Edge Hill student teachers introduced a range of CS Unplugged activities to the class, including handling variables. Unfortunately, I may have misread what these students were planning to do and I located them in a computer room that did not have a lot of space for movement. One particular thing that seemed to be a big hit with our pupils were the Facebook styled ‘like’ stickers that were awarded for teams successfully solving computing challenges.
While there was an initial panic about the lack of interest from volunteers which then turned into anxieties about the volume of offers, I would certainly consider organising more of these events in the future and I would encourage other teachers and schools to consider it. It creates many opportunities for pupils that are not freely available. I was touched that many of the pupils made a point of locating me at the end of the day to thank me for organising it, this might not seem unusual to non-teachers, but generally pupils don’t thank you for a lesson, no matter how amazing it may have been. Some students were anxiously trying to secure work experience placements with the geeks that they met.
Obviously, there is no way I would recommend anyone try to organise an event like this in the short timeframe that I did of just 3 weeks. I would even consider 6 weeks as being too short a timeframe. The geeks and volunteers really make this whole event and in order to secure their support, you need to be publicising the event well in advance so that people can organise their diaries and request leave if necessary. Organising an event like this on a school day presents additional problems since it depends on your geeks not being in work on that day, this was my principal reason for approaching colleges and universities for support. Weekends have proven to be easier to gain wider community support.
Another key factor to ensuring the smooth running of an event is to keep all those involved in regular contact with updates so that everyone knows what to expect up to the moment they arrive and beyond.
Special thanks are due to all the people who contributed to the success of the day, including the school staff who worked behind the scenes organising additional parking, catering, furniture etc. Without this support these events would not be possible.
More photos here and the video to help prepare pupils for the event.