How does a computer know what to do?
A leading kids’ coding expert recently lamented that teachers are making computer class ‘way too boring’. Well, he obviously hadn’t sat in on a SOLE Code session recently!
As part of international Hour of Code week, two SOLE classrooms 3,000 miles apart linked up for joint sessions where they not only tackled the Big Question: What is a computer bug? but they also bugged and debugged a lite version of the infamous Flappy Bird game.
“Creativity is key to successful coding,” explains Dr Anne Preston, who is part of the collaborative team at Newcastle University running these sessions. “You can teach coding by getting children to sit in front of a computer on their own, but where’s the fun in that? By using self-organised learning, the children collaborate to devise questions they want to solve, and also come up with their own answers. That way, the learning really stays with them as it’s tailor-made for each different group.”
On Wednesday 9 December, children from Amberley Primary School near New York, North Tyneside, UK had the chance to learn more about computational thinking and develop their coding skills. They were working alongside fellow students in their more famous namesake SOLE NYC at John B Russwurm PS197 elementary school in Harlem, the location of Sugata’s Mitra’s latest TED SOLE research lab.
Dr Shaimaa Lazem, who leads the joint coding project between Newcastle University’s SOLE Central and Open Lab, was extremely pleased with how everything went. “The children collaborated really well,” she says. “They even thought of something we hadn’t considered, designing their own ice-breaker by gathering in front of the big screen and asking each other questions about Newcastle, New York, and a typical school day.”
During the follow-up SOLE session “What is a computer bug?” on the Friday, the children used iPads constantly connected to New York to keep the conversation flowing.
The Year 4 (3rd grade, US) children experimented with the coding skills they gained earlier in the week to self-organise around a programming activity to design a bugged game. They used a lite version of the controversial Flappy Bird game (which was the most popular app in the world until its inventor got fed up with the fame and took it down).
They implemented a bug (a ‘mistake’ in the code) and then switched groups to find the bug in each other’s program, switching once again to fix it. Afterwards, they had a joint ‘debrief’ between the UK and the US to discuss how they tackled the coding challenge.
In previous SOLE Code sessions, researchers have used Lego to help children learn coding, which is not at strange as it might initially seem: visual programming languages depict commands as blocks that can be snapped together, just like Lego, into more complex sets of instructions.
Mitchel Resnick, who made the comments about ‘boring’ computer classes on NPR Ed led the team that developed the visual programming language called Scratch over a decade ago and has also created a junior version designed for children aged 5+.
Teacher Chris Carr, who runs Amberley SOLE each week after school, welcomed this new way to use SOLE in the classroom to teach coding skills. “What interests me about SOLE is the creativity that happens alongside the students gaining knowledge and social skills,” he says. “It’s not about a teacher standing in front of a class delivering knowledge anymore – it’s about sparking children’s interest and creativity and letting them take ownership of their own learning.”
Hour of Code Week, which ran from 7-13 December 2015, is organised by Code.org, a non-profit organisation dedicated to expanding access to computer science. Their vision is for every student in every school to have the opportunity to learn computer science and for it to be part of the core curriculum, as it is in the UK.