Computing Club

For 9 months I've been teaching a computing club at my son's primary school. Here's what I learned about teaching kids, and why tech needs to be a much bigger part of primary school.

Me and the club kids had huge fun with computing and coding, made computers interact with the real world, and even learned some physics and engineering stuff along the way.

It has been (at least) a half day a week commitment during busy bootstrap time at Wallet.Services. Huge thanks my colleaguesfor their support when I snuck off every Monday afternoon back to school.

We've completed 2 terms now, and I have been amazed at the progress the boys and girls (aged 9,10, and 11) have made.

Between August and Easter we went from never having cut a line of code to computing projects in encryption, Bluetooth radio communications and robotics control. The kids networked microcomputers, wired together basic electronic circuits, and even learned proper grown-up typed languages like Python.

Stuff we're trying to cover in 2016/17  in Bruntsfield Computing

Stuff we're trying to cover in 2016/17  in Bruntsfield Computing

The piece de résistance was on Easter Parents day having Mum/Dad/kid teams compete to be the first to code a robot to find its path "from Bruntsfield Primary to Boroughmuir High".

It’s shown me that

  • All primary school boys and girls can have fun with science, tech and engineering if they get the opportunity,
  • …but those opportunities are generally few and superficial at Primary school
  • Computing club can do fun projects that give ALL kids an insight into How Stuff Works (not just those kids who become “techies”)
  • …and wee girls and wee boys can catch the bug which leads them to STEM subjects in High School

The kids have been brilliant and their parents should be proud of what they achieved. .

Doing it for the kids

Kids these days have a better opportunity to get to grips with technology than there has ever been. We are awash with great learning resources, cheap computing, and the prospect of coding giving you master over really cool things like robots, rockets, MineCraft and mobiles.

Today any child, teacher or parent can get involved with a £5 Microbit and free access to SCRATCH and CodeCademy.

In my childhood of the early 1980's a BBC Model B cost my mum and dad £400 - a small fortune in those days - and the web wasn't even a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee's eye. I was lucky back then, but despite the technological progress in the subsequent 35 years, I would assert that few kids are exposed to tech from the "how it works" perspective in their Primary years.

Most kids now become tech consumers from shortly after birth, weaned on iPads and video streaming services. But generally, any useful computing, science, engineering of any rigour happens only if kids select it for 3rd year of High School.

Leaving this till 13 is a mistake. IMHO this is because not enough politicians, parents and educators understand the role digital technology plays in every walk of life. This narrow view could condemns kids, like many parents, to seeing Facebook, Amazon, iPhone and driverless cars as black magic, and making many possible future careers unavailable to them if we don't do something about it.

I think all P7s should be sent off to high school as:

  • Kids who don’t just know how to prod tablets and smartphones, but have an appreciation of how tech works
  • Kids who are not helpless when something breaks, and can make a printer print, configure computers, and make the connection between maths, computing and the physical world.
  • Kids who are healthily sceptical about the cyber security of their data and communications
  • Hopefully Kids who, if they are inclined, build useful things with technology and can go on to make it a career

I'd like to say that a public-spirited passion to do something about this manifesto drove me to start a Computing Club at Bruntsfield Primary. But in truth it was because, unprompted, my 10-year-old son Maarek organised a meeting with the schools highly motivated Head Teacher Carol Kyle. Between them they got me to make all sorts of promises and commitments!

Getting to the start line

But logistics of getting a computing class started took much longer than I had anticipated. It involved going through PVG with Disclosure Scotland, a false start with Edinburgh City Council admin, till finally I went through the Parents after-school club route which took care of booking and pupil sign up hassle. But I note it took over 6 months to get to the point where I was actually in school, with a group of P6s and P7s every Monday for 45 minutes.

1st term

Our first term was all about graphics and games.We used the excellent SCRATCH online editor.

Scratch is a free visual programming language used by students, teachers, and parents to create animation and games. Actually a few of the class had already seen Scratch through “Hour of Code”. They have great fun drawing characters and backgrounds, and to animate and control them they end up programming almost by accident.

It’s a simple first step into computer programming which is picked up quickly even by infants because they can create good looking working games within half an hour. Along the wat it teaches the basics of variables, loops, controls and events.

Here’s a picture of the friendly Scratch cat, some of the nicknames and Avatars the kids drew in their first few weeks. And the deeply disturbing Trump political pastiche animation “Vote Pudding!”

I found that some kids really enjoyed the design element, and were incredibly quick at knocking up great looking animations even in the first few weeks.

We moved on through simple weekly tasks to building complete applications – an animated Christmas greetings card, Maze games, platform games. Along the way we were able to sneak in some science-y stuff. For example, to animate a ball rolling and falling to the bottom of the screen the kids needed to model gravity.

 

I was staggered with how quickly the kids took on new concepts, and the 45 minute practical lessons were very busy for a single teacher.

First term came to a crescendo on parents’ day, when the redoubtable doyen of Bruntsfield Primary Carol Kyle presented Christmas prizes for the challenges which had been set through the year. It was like the Oscars!

 2nd term

After Christmas I had been so impressed by what the kids had achieved in Scratch, that I was keen to move onto broader computing projects. Nearly all of the kids signed up for term 2, so I thought that we must be doing something right.

I was able to procure some BBC Microbits through the CodeClub organization (now part of the Raspberry Pi foundation).

Microbits are wee computers, smaller than a credit card, which include most of the features you have built in to your SmartPhone (like an accelerometer, Bluetooth and what not), and an “edge connector” which lets you hook it up to external electronics. They are easy to program through web browser based tools (important for the bolted-down PCs we have access to in school). The project is supported by the BBC, Microsoft, and lots of crazy mad inventors and makers who make videos and publish their projects which your average Computing Club teacher can steal.

BBC Microbit

After a few weeks of working out a new blocky programming language (which looks a bit like scratch) we created some projects that used the Microbits on-board devices – one favourite being a schoolbag alarm that used accelerometer measurements to detect when a schoolbag is being nicked.

 

Then we started to think about how computers are used to control other devices in the real world. I dallied with the idea of bringing in the soldering irons, but fearing setting the Bruntsfield lab on fire and scorching small fingers we got the croc clips out instead to hook the Microbit up with very basic electronic circuits.

Encouraged with the progress with the Microbits, we started to get really ambitious. AllyEpic had asked to learn proper “grown up” programming language. So we spent a few weeks starting to learn Python.

Python is a professional programming language. It uses typed code, rather than the drag and drop and block interface of Scratch. Because it’s a readable and versatile language its familiar to many programmers, hackers, and IT people. It’s an object-oriented language and often used to teach programming and computer sciences. Turns out 9, 10 and 11 can grasp it too!

The kids rose  to the challenge.

In one project we split the class into 2 groups. One group wrote a program to send a message over the Bluetooth radio to the second group which could receive and display it on the Microbits LEDs.

In the final challenge of term parents joined their kids to use a Microbit to control a robot. Chickbot is a basic vehicle which moves and steers using 2 little yellow motors controlled from the Microbits edge connector.

 

It was a tense competition – one hour to sequence code to steer the robot around a map of the kids primary and secondary school. The stakes were high - as it was just before Easter, they were competing for a chocolate easter egg. Just at a minute to go, when I thought I would get to eat the egg myself, I’m delighted to say that Alexandra and Theo, a kid-only team not slowed down by any parents, successfully steered Chickbot to Boroughmuir!

What I learned

Here are some of the things I’ve learned and advice I would offer to others thinking of doing the same:

  • I’ve learned to really admire teachers. 1 hour in a class full of kids is exhausting. And kids can see through a fraud, so you really need to know your stuff (and Python syntax).
  • Balance fun with challenge. In retrospect, a 1 hour lesson on introductory Python syntax is a bit much for a P6 and I did at one point end up with a wee girl face to the keyboard complaining of a sore head
  • 15 is a big class, and needs at least 2 to supervise/teach. On challenging practical lessons, I couldn’t get round the class and help everyone as much as I would have liked.
  • Don’t underestimate the time and effort navigating through school regulations, and don’t assume that getting a desirable technology setup in the school technology facilities will be easy
  • Re-use resources. If you can get the school to sign up CodeClub provide great scripted handouts with lessons and challenges. There are other great resources like the TES resource library.

And anyone who wants them contact me and I will share all my powerpoints and lesson plans.  

My Computing Club experience has incredibly satisfying, the feedback from kids, parents and teachers makes me think that it has been worthwhile. It’s confirmed my view that all kids should get similar opportunities.

Primary school staff need access to support, experience and resources to make this happen – and this means more volunteers.

In Bruntsfield I’m glad to say that we’ve got some more support from local students to help run the after-school computing classes, which has let us increase the numbers attending for this term.

And finally big thanks to my son Maarek, who has been a constant helper in lesson preparation and helping out during lessons, and without whom the Bruntsfield P6/7 club might not have got started and been such a big success.


Practical Note1:

Use the SCRATCH online environment which supports a TEACHER to create a CLASS and its STUDENT logon accounts. This saves time in dealing with password resets. We used Scratch ALBUMs to let the kids collaborate on projects and share their work.

Historical noteS

My class are at the age I was when I got my first computer – the result of an earlier BBC computing literacy project, the  BBC Micro model "B". It must have cost my Mam and Dad an arm and a leg, but was a revelation to me. My only access to computing had been an old Apple II computer in Kirkie High School library. My older pal from the end of the street (who had previously built his own Acorn Atom) and I joined a computing club at Strathclyde University where we would be driven in each week with BBC Micro, a tape recorder, and a Black and White portable telly under the arm. Fast forward 35 years – the Microbit is 1% of the cost, is incomprehensibly more powerful and useful, and is way more cool.