Monday, 25 February 2013

Learning Together at the BETT show

Firstly, sorry for the delay since the event and me writing about it.  In a round about way, this blog serves as a bit of a life story of my PhD and anything I do practically I blog about.  When I start writing in anger, I can look back and see what I've learnt as time has progressed and my viewpoint has changed.  As I start doing more practical research, hopefully this blog will become more heavily populated with posts and become a bit of a reflective research diary.  At least that's the plan anyway!  The reason for the delay is that I've been deep in reading, and planning out my methodological approach and conceptual models.  It's been a tricky time as I keep going round in circles and to top it off, it's a new term so I've been busy preparing my teaching.  there is no time like the present though  so here is a quick write up of what I did at BETT.

Anyway, I was grateful to my supervisor Stephen for letting me loose on some willing and (very capable) young students from around the world who wanted to learn more about computer programming.  The setting for this, was again at the BETT Educational Tradeshow, which has moved this year to the ExCel centre in East London from Olympia in West London. It's a cracking venue, but not without its challenges when working with children and technology (for instance GPS and WiFi are completely non-functional in the massive metal hall).  So much has happened in the year since I did this last time - for instance - the Raspberry Pi came into existence - an educational computer, designed and made in the UK and available to purchase for less than £20, the English Baccalaureate was proposed (with a Comp Sci element) and then was scrapped before it came into being, UK primary and secondary schools became enthused about Comp Sci then ran off with their tails between their legs saying teachers needed too much upskilling (they don't), and I started my PhD with Bournemouth Uni to try and make a contribution academically in this area!

So, what did we do at BETT? Well, the idea was that the show's central stand was themed around 'Learning Together', with a special focus on making and STEM subjects.  Four schools and a community educational group had provided willing students from 9-18 who wanted to learn about and share what they had learnt on the stand.  I was there to provide some projects and supervision for the students.  A number of projects were dreamt up (mainly in my hotel room), and what I wanted to try and do was see how the children's creativity could produce some really interesting outputs.  I also wanted to see if a more physical, touchy-feely approach would engage the creators more than just sitting in front of a computer and banging out some code.  My hunch is that something physical can teach the core elements of virtual creation (i.e. coding) quicker and better than actually coding itself.  Remember, I'm only trying to see if we can teach some of the elements that would prepare you to understand programming/Computer Science.  If I wanted to have a polished app as an output, I'd use code and an IDE of course, and so should the kids.

So, the best approach was going to be offer a range of activities, and compare the enjoyment, outputs and engagement of the different activities.  I didn't really want this to be an experiment as such, but rather to try and prove my hunch.

So what did we do?  Well, the following activities were very much enjoyed by myself and the kids on the stand:

  • Learn Programming with Scratch
  • Learn (a bit more) Programming with Python
  • Make a fruit based controller or musical instrument with a MakeyMakey kit
  • Control an RC car with JavaScript
  • Count in Binary using real people (with 1s and 0s on their T-Shirts)
  • Control a Parrot AR.Drone with a Raspberry Pi
  • Use people to complete a circuit with a MakeyMakey kit

All of these were tried by at least one group of students, and each one was LOTS of fun for both me and the participants.  In terms of proving my hunch, as it happened all of these activities were enjoyed, but engagement was certainly higher with the more physical tasks.  It wasn't really that scientific if I'm honest as there were other variables present (for instance some of the boys love cars, so the car task was really interesting for them).  Then again, did it need to be scientific? This was a qualitative study, but perhaps there were too many variables here to really prove that much, and I was too distracted sometimes trying to supervise the students to take enough notes.  As I said before, I'm not far enough down my PhD to be doing the research in anger yet, but it is helping inform my research design, and my understanding of what students and teachers need to be able to do this stuff in schools and pre-school.

Oh, and as a side-note, my group of older researchers decided that combining the MakeyMakey and AR.Drone was too tempting - check out the AWESOME video here.

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