June 23, 2017

Nine ideas for teaching Computing at School from the 2017 CAS conference


Delegates at the Computing at School conference 2017 #CASConf17 answering diagnostic questions, picture by Miles Berry.

The Computing At School (CAS) conference is an annual event for educators, mostly primary and secondary school teachers from the public and private sector in the UK. Now in its ninth year, it attracts over 300 delegates from across the UK and beyond to the University of Birmingham, see the brochure for details. One of the purposes of the conference is to give teachers new ideas to use in their classrooms to teach Computer Science and Computational Thinking. I went along for my first time (*blushes*) seeking ideas to use in an after school Code Club (ages 7-10) I’ve been running for a few years and also for approaches that undergraduate students in Computer Science (age 20+) at the University of Manchester could use in their final year Computer Science Education projects that I supervise. So here are nine ideas (in random brain dump order) I’ll be putting to immediate use in clubs, classrooms, labs and lecture theatres:

  1. Linda Liukas demonstrated some intriguing ideas from her children’s books and HelloRuby.com that are based on Montessori education. I shall be trying some of these out (particularly the storytelling stuff) at code club to keep girls involved
  2. Sue Sentance and Neil Brown from King’s College London gave an overview of some current research in pedagogy.  They discussed research questions that can be tackled in the classroom like (for example) do learners make more progress using visual programming languages (like Scratch and Blockly) or traditional text-based languages (like Python and Java etc)? Many of these research questions would make good projects for undergraduate students to investigate in secondary schools.
  3. Michel Wermelinger from the Open University demonstrated using iPython notebooks for teaching data literacy at the Urban Data School. Although I’m familiar with iPython, it had never occurred to me to actually use iPython in school for teaching. It is a no-brainer, when you think about it, even for primary, because you have your code, inputs and outputs all in one window, and can step through code execution instead of (or as well as) using more conventional tools like Trinket or IDLE.
  4. Miles Berry from the University of Roehampton demonstrated Diagnostic Questions in Project Quantum. These are a collection of high quality quizzes to use interactively for example as hinge questions, where teaching is adapted depending on answers given, like this multiple choice question:
    Consider the following Python code:
    a = 20
    b = 10
    a = b
    What are the values of a and b?
    A: a = 10, b = 10
    B: a = 20, b = 20
    C: a = 30, b = 10
    D: a = 10, b = 20

    You’ll have to try these five questions to check your answer. The useful thing here is that DiagnosticQuestions.com (the platform on which this is built) allows you to see lots of responses, for example each answer (A, B, C or D) above was selected by 25% of participants. You can also view explanations which illuminate common misconceptions as well as providing a bank of free questions for use in the classroom.

  5. Mark Guzdial from GeorgiaTech discussed using learning sciences to improve computing teaching. He demonstrated predictive questions (e.g. ask students What do you think will happen when we run this code? before actually executing it) alongside what he called subgoal labelling. These are simple ideas (with proven benefits) that can be put to use immediately. I’ll also be trying the Live Coding (with Sonic Pi) and Media Computation he demonstrated asap.
  6. Laurence Rogers demonstrated Insight: Mr. Bit  this looks like a good app for using BBC microbits in the classroom, connected to a range of sensors, provided you’ve got access to iPads.
  7. A copy of Hello World magazine was in the conference bag. The summer 2017 issue has an unusual article from Ian Benson from Kingston University and Jenny Cane describing their use of the Haskell programming language to teach 5-7 year olds to reason symbolically and learn algebra before arithmetic with help from Cuisenaire rods. The Scratch Maths project at University College London are doing similar things, building mathematical knowledge using Scratch, rather than Haskell. These are experimental ideas you could try out on unsuspecting (junior) family members.
  8. Lee Goss from Barefoot Computing, described the free CPD for primary school teachers on offer from BT. I’ve signed up and hope to plug some of the shortcomings in the Code Club Curriculum.
  9. Richard Jarvis demonstrated appJar, a handy Python library for teaching Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs). That’s Jar as in Jarvis and Jam, not JAR as in Java ARchive BTW. I’ve not tried GUIs at code club yet, but appJar looks like a good way to do it.

There were lots more people and projects at the conference not mentioned here including tonnes of workshops. If you’re interested in any of the above, the CAS conference will be back in 2018. Despite the challenging problems faced by Computer Science at GCSE level, it was reassuring and inspiring to meet some members of the vibrant, diverse and friendly community pushing the boundaries of computing in schools across the United Kingdom. Thanks again to everyone at CAS for putting on another great event, I will definitely consider attending next year and maybe you should too.

July 31, 2015

Wikipedia Science Conference @WellcomeTrust in London, September 2nd & 3rd 2015 #wikisci

There is growing interest in Wikipedia, Wikidata, Commons, and other Wikimedia projects as platforms for opening up the scientific process [1]. The first Wikipedia Science Conference will discuss activities in this area at the Wellcome Collection Conference Centre in London on the 2nd & 3rd September 2015. There will be keynote talks from Wendy Hall (@DameWendyDBE) and Peter Murray-Rust (@petermurrayrust) and many other presentations including:

  • Daniel Mietchen (@EvoMRI), National Institutes of Health: wikipedia and scholarly communication
  • Alex Bateman (@AlexBateman1), European Bioinformatics Institute: Using wikipedia to annotate scientific databases
  • Geoffrey Bilder (@GBilder), CrossRef, Using DOIs in wikipedia
  • Richard Pinch (@IMAMaths), Institute of Mathematics and its Applications. Wikimedia versus academia: a clash of cultures
  • Andy Mabbett (@PigsOnTheWing), Royal Society of Chemistry / ORCID. Wikipedia, Wikidata and more – How Can Scientists Help?
  • Darren Logan (@DarrenLogan), Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Using scientific databases to annotate wikipedia
  • Dario Taraborelli (@ReaderMeter), Wikimedia & Altmetrics, Citing as a public service
  • … and many more

I’ll be doing a talk on “Improving the troubled relationship between Scientists and Wikipedia” (see slides below) with help from John Byrne who has been a Wikipedian in Residence at the Royal Society and Cancer Research UK.

How much does finding out more about all this wiki-goodness cost? An absolute bargain at just £29 for two days – what’s not to like? Tickets are available on eventbrite, register now, while tickets are still available. 


  1. Misha Teplitskiy, Grace Lu, & Eamon Duede (2015). Amplifying the Impact of Open Access: Wikipedia and the Diffusion of
    Science Wikipedia Workshop at 9th International Conference on Web and Social Media (ICWSM), Oxford, UK arXiv: 1506.07608v1

March 4, 2014

CoderDojo, CodingDojo or CodeJo?

CC-BY licensed picture of a Hacker Dojo by Mitch Altman.

A dojo (or a dōjō) is an event where people train to perform a given task. So for example, software engineers organise code dojos to hone their skills in making software. The term has become widely adopted, so much so, that you’ll often find many flavours of dojo in your local area. In Manchester, there are at least three variants and these often get confused, usually by me. So here’s a quick explanation of what the different dojos do and how they are different.

CoderDojo: @coderdojo & @mcrcoderdojo etc

CoderDojo.com is an open source, volunteer led, global movement of free coding clubs for young people. You’ll find Coder Dojos all over the world, the Manchester Coder Dojo meets once a month in The Sharp Project, and like many coder dojos is very popular and frequently over-subscribed.

CodingDojo: @uomcodingdojo & @codingdojodotco

A group of students at the University of Manchester organise a Coding Dojo @uomcodingdojo see fb.com/uomcodingdojo. They practise problems in TopCoder and other puzzles [1-5] in order to compete in the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest. They do this because it’s fun, improves their skill and prepares them for the kind’s of problems that are commonly found in a Coding Interviews  – a variant of the infamous Microsoft / Amazon / Google / Apple / Facebook / Twitter interviews. [6,7]

(The Manchester Coding Dojo are nothing to do with codingdojo.com  an outfit in Seattle and Silly Valley who claim to “teach you programming in 2 weeks” see @codingdojodotco.)

Codejo: @manc_codejo

The Manchester Codejo is monthly coding meetup in Manchester, where developers improve their skills by performing Katas – exercises designed to improve coding ability through repetition. So at their last meeting for example, Gemma Cameron @ruby_gem recently ran a Codejo session on the Class-responsibility-collaboration card at manchester.techhub.com.

In other words…

So @coderdojo ≠ @uomcodingdojo ≠ @manc_codejo ≠ @McrCoderDojo etc. Hope this clears up some confusion…


  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dining Philosophers
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eight queens puzzle
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower of Hanoi
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Travelling salesman problem
  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two Generals’ problem
  6. McDowell, Gayle Laakman (2011) Cracking the Coding Interview: 150 Programming Questions and Solutions Career Cup ISBN:098478280X
  7. Poundstone, William (2013) Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? Fiendish Puzzles And Impossible Interview Questions From The World’s Top Companies Oneworld Publications ISBN:1851689559

August 20, 2012

Digital Research 2012: September 10th-12th at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, UK

The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford by chensiyuan

The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford by chensiyuan via wikipedia

The UK’s premier Digital Research community event is being held in Oxford 10-12 September 2012. Come along to showcase and share the latest in digital research practice – and set the agenda for tomorrow at Digital Research 2012. The conference features an exciting 3-day programme with a great set of invited speakers together with showcases of the work and vision of the Digital Research community. Here are some highlights of the programme – please see the website digital-research.oerc.ox.ac.uk for the full programme and registration information.

New Science of New Data Symposium and Innovation Showcase  on Monday 10th: Keynotes from Noshir Contractor [1] (Northwestern University) on Web Science, Nigel Shadbolt (Government Information Adviser) on Open Data and a closing address by Kieron O’Hara (computer scientist) – with twitter analytics, geolocated social media and web observatories in between. Also the launch of the Software Sustainability Institute’s Fellows programme and community workshops.

Future of Digital Research on Tuesday 11th: Keynotes from Stevan Harnad on “Digital Research: How and Why the Research Councils UK Open Access Policy Needs to Be Revised” [2], Jim Hendler (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) on “Broad Data” (not just big!), and Lizbeth Goodman (University College Dublin) on “SMART spaces by and for SMART people”. Sessions are themed on Open Science with a talk by Peter Murray-Rust, Smart Spaces as a Utility and future glimpses from the community, all culminating in a Roundtable discussion on the Future of Digital Research.

e–Infrastructure Forum and Innovation Showcase on Wednesday 12th opens with a dual-track community innovation showcase, then launch the UK e-Infrastructure Academic Community Forum where Peter Coveney (UK e-Infrastructure Leadership Council and University College London) will present the “state of the nation” followed by a Provider’s Panel, Software, Training and User’s Panel – an important and timely opportunity for the community to review current progress and determine what’s needed in the future.

There’s a lot more happening throughout the event, including an exciting “DevChallenge” hackathon run by DevCSI, software surgery by the Software Sustainability Institute (SSI) and multiple community workshops – plus the Digital Research 2012 dinner in College and a reception in the spectacular Museum of Natural History in Oxford. Digital Research 2012 is very grateful to everyone who has come together to make this event possible, including e-Research South, Open Knowledge Foundation, Web Science, the Digital Social Research programme, our Digital Economy colleagues and the All Hands Foundation.

We look forward to seeing you at Digital Research 2012 in Oxford in September.


  1. Lazer, D., Pentland, A., Adamic, L., Aral, S., Barabasi, A.L., Brewer, D., Christakis, N., Contractor, N., Fowler, J., Gutmann, M. & (2009). Social Science: Computational Social Science, Science, 323 (5915) 723. DOI: 10.1126/science.1167742
  2. Stevan Harnad (2012). Open access: A green light for archiving, Nature, 487 (7407) 302. DOI: 10.1038/487302b

June 15, 2012

Alan Turing Centenary Conference, 22nd-25th June 2012

Alan Turing by Michael Dales

The Alan Turing statue at Bletchley Park. Creative commons licensed picture via Michael Dales on Flickr

Next weekend, a bunch of very distinguished computer scientists will rock up at the magnificent Manchester Town Hall for the Turing Centenary Conference in order to analyse the development of Computer ScienceArtificial Intelligence and Alan Turing’s legacy [1].

There’s an impressive and stellar speaker line-up including:

Tickets are not cheap at £450 for four days, but you can sign up for free public lectures by Jack Copeland on Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age and Roger Penrose on the problem of modelling a mathematical mind. Alternatively, if you can lend some time, the conference organisers are looking for volunteers to help out in return for a free conference pass. Contact Vicki Chamberlin for details if you’re interested.


  1. Chouard, T. (2012). Turing at 100: Legacy of a universal mind Nature, 482 (7386), 455-455 DOI: 10.1038/482455a see also nature.com/turing

May 24, 2012

Physics or Stamp Collecting? Let’s hear it for the Stamp Collectors

An old stamp collection by DigitalTribes on Flickr

Are you a Physicist or a Stamp Collector? Creative commons licensed image via DigitalTribes on Flickr.

The Life Scientific is a series of interviews by Jim Al-Khalili of high profile scientists. It’s a bit like Desert Island Discs without the music and with more interesting guests. If you missed them on the radio, you can download the lot as a podcast. Here’s a good example of an interview with John Sulston on the Physics vs. Stamp Collecting debate [1].

Jim Al-Khalili:

“There’s this wonderful, I’m sure you’ve heard it, Lord Rutherford’s tongue in cheek quote that all science is either physics or stamp collecting. Very rude, very insulting of course and it was applying to the way 19th Century naturalists would classify the world around them. What you were doing was a similar sort of thing but down at the level of individual cells.”

John Sulston:

“Yes I mean I am a stamp collector by that definition and I freely admit that, that’s why…”

Jim Al-Khalili:

“I don’t want to be insulting.”

John Sulston:

“No, no, no it’s not insulting in the least, I am a stamp collector but stamp collecting with a purpose, I don’t want to collect all stamps, I like collecting stamps that people are going to use. So I collect patterns perhaps is what I do. And I make maps that other people can use for their own work and that’s true of the cell, and it’s true of the genome, and I think that’s my role, I don’t think I’m a very intellectual person but I certainly can through a sort of obsession and loving of sort of completeness make a map that other people find valuable. Whereas other people previously had only done little tiny bits of it, which weren’t joined up, so I had to do the joining up, that’s very appealing to me. But it works – it wouldn’t work at all if you were off on your own – that’s why the stamp collector thing is used in a pejorative sense because it means somebody all by themselves just obsessively collecting stamps but if you bring a map out and it becomes the basis for a lot of other people’s work, like my maps have, then it’s entirely different.”

So let’s hear it for the stamp collectors, aka the “other scientists”. They no longer have to live in the shadow of Ernest Rutherford‘s jokey insult about their physics envy.


  1. Birks, J.B. (1962) Rutherford at Manchester OCLC:490736835
  2. Ihde, A. (1964). Rutherford at Manchester (Birks, J. B., ed.) Journal of Chemical Education, 41 (11) DOI: 10.1021/ed041pA896
  3. Birks, J., & Segrè, E. (1963). Rutherford at Manchester Physics Today, 16 (12) DOI: 10.1063/1.3050668
  4. Goldhammer, P. (1963). Rutherford at Manchester. J. B. Birks, Ed. Heywood, London, 1962; Benjamon, New York, 1963. x + 364 pp. Illus. $ 12.50 Science, 142 (3594), 943-944 DOI: 10.1126/science.142.3594.943-a

March 15, 2012

Be nice to nerds … you may end up working for them

Thought for the day: be nice to nerds because you might end of up working for them.

This sound advice comes from DARPA defector and newly appointed Googler Regina Dugan (see picture below).

Regina Dugan by Steve Jurvetson

What’s that you say? You’re not sure exactly what a nerd is? There are many definitions but the graphic below sums it up better than the Oxford English Dictionary ever could.

Are you a nerd, geek, dork or dweeb?

But beware! Many self-confessed nerds may actually be dorks, dweebs or geeks. It’s a grey area out there in the Venn of Nerdery, not quite as clear cut as the diagram above. To be sure of treating nerds right, you’ll need to be nice to dorks, dweebs and geeks too! See video for details…

[Creative Commons licensed picture of Regina Dugan at TED via Steve Jurvetson]

November 24, 2009

Semantic Web Applications and Tools for the Life Sciences (SWAT4LS) 2009, Amsterdam

Snow in Amsterdam by Bas van GaalenLast Friday, the Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica (CWI) in Amsterdam hosted a workshop called Semantic Web Applications and Tools for the Life Sciences (SWAT4LS) 2009.

Following on from last year [1], the workshop proceedings will be published at ceur-ws.org and in a special issue of the Journal of Biomedical Semantics, but if you want to find out what happened in the meantime, take a look at the #swat4ls2009 hashtag on twitter. Twitter makes bloggers lazy (they blog less but tweet more), but thankfully Nico Adams has studiously blogged the workshop very extensively.

Disruptive Technologies Director (cool job title!) Anita de Waard from Elsevier was asking what were the conclusions of the workshop. So here is an incomplete summary: Roughly speaking, people agreed to disagree (again). Keynote speaker Barend Mons argued that redundant data should be eliminated through the use of “nano-publications” and micro-attribution in his entertaining but controversial keynote. Some people in the audience disagreed with this. Greg Tyrelle thinks that redundancy is a feature, not a bug, in the Web and we have to deal with it. Alan Ruttenberg argued that semantic web reasoners  are required to clean up and sanity check all the messy and noisy biological data but emphasised the importance of Computer Scientists learning to speak Biologists language.

The good thing about this workshop is its size: small, friendly but internationally attended. Thanks to M. Scott Marshall, Albert Burger, Adrian Paschke, Paolo Romano and Andrea Splendiani for organising another good workshop, hope to see you again next year (if not before).


  1. Burger, A., Romano, P., Paschke, A., & Splendiani, A. (2009). Semantic Web Applications and Tools for Life Sciences, 2008 – Introduction BMC Bioinformatics, 10 (Suppl 10) DOI: 10.1186/1471-2105-10-S10-S1 part of the special issue on SWAT4LS 2008

[CC-licensed picture of Amsterdam in the snow by Bas van Gaalen]

September 4, 2009

XML training in Oxford

XML Summer School 2009The XML Summer School returns this year at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford from 20th-25th September 2009. As always, it’s packed with high quality technical training for every level of expertise, from the Hands-on Introduction for beginners through to special classes devoted to XQuery and XSLT, Semantic Technologies, Open Source Applications, Web 2.0, Web Services and Identity. The Summer School is also a rare opportunity to experience what life is like as a student in one of the world’s oldest university cities while enjoying a range of social events that are a part of the unique summer school experience.

This year, classes and sessions are taught and chaired by:

W3C XML 10th anniversaryThe Extensible Markup Language (XML) has been around for just over ten years, quickly and quietly finding its niche in many different areas of science and technology. It has been used in everything from modelling biochemical networks in systems biology [1], to electronic health records [2], scientific publishing, the provision of the PubMed service (which talks XML) [3] and many other areas. As a crude measure of its importance in biomedical science, PubMed currently has no fewer than 800 peer-reviewed publications on XML. It’s hard to imagine life without it. So whether you’re a complete novice looking to learn more about XML or a seasoned veteran wanting to improve your knowledge, register your place and find out more by visiting xmlsummerschool.com. I hope to see you there…


  1. Hucka, M. (2003). The systems biology markup language (SBML): a medium for representation and exchange of biochemical network models Bioinformatics, 19 (4), 524-531 DOI: 10.1093/bioinformatics/btg015
  2. Bunduchi R, Williams R, Graham I, & Smart A (2006). XML-based clinical data standardisation in the National Health Service Scotland. Informatics in primary care, 14 (4) PMID: 17504574
  3. Sayers, E., Barrett, T., Benson, D., Bryant, S., Canese, K., Chetvernin, V., Church, D., DiCuccio, M., Edgar, R., Federhen, S., Feolo, M., Geer, L., Helmberg, W., Kapustin, Y., Landsman, D., Lipman, D., Madden, T., Maglott, D., Miller, V., Mizrachi, I., Ostell, J., Pruitt, K., Schuler, G., Sequeira, E., Sherry, S., Shumway, M., Sirotkin, K., Souvorov, A., Starchenko, G., Tatusova, T., Wagner, L., Yaschenko, E., & Ye, J. (2009). Database resources of the National Center for Biotechnology Information Nucleic Acids Research, 37 (Database) DOI: 10.1093/nar/gkn741

August 24, 2009

I bet you think this blog is about you, don’t you?

Science Online London 2009Last Saturday, The Royal Institution of Great Britain (R.I.) hosted a conference called Science Online London (#solo09) co-organised by mendeley.com and network.nature.com. The event centred around the fantastic Faraday Theatre which according to the R.I. is a “beautiful, historic theatre [which] has deeply raked seating that creates an intimate atmosphere, even when full to capacity”. Absolutely. Just like last year, this event attracted delegates and speakers from a wide range of backgrounds in science, publishing and communication from around the world. This post is an approximately alphabetically ordered link-fest of some of the people involved. People are, after all, the most interesting thing about any conference. If you’re not listed here it’s not because I don’t like you (honest!) it’s because we didn’t speak or I didn’t listen or (unlike many people) you’re not vain enough [1] to have a have a blog (yet) 🙂

Now I’m told the presentations mentioned above will be on Nature Precedings in due course, which will be good. Thanks to all the organisers, speakers and participants this year that made Science Online London 2009 well worth attending. Hopefully see some more of you again next year!


  1. Carly Simon (1972) You’re So Vain
  2. Geoffrey Bilder (2006). In Google We Trust? Journal of Electronic Publishing, 9 (1) DOI: 10.3998/3336451.0009.101
  3. Matt Brown (2008). Venerable institute gets a refit Nature, 453 (7195), 568-569 DOI: 10.1038/453568a
  4. Matt Brown (2008). Reimagining the Royal Institution Nature, 453 (7195), 595-595 DOI: 10.1038/453595a
  5. Duncan Hull (2009). Slides from the author identity session: Authenticating Scientists with OpenID
  6. Jennifer Rohn and Richard P. Grant (2009). Pre-conference video: Live Roof Surfing at Mendeley Fringe Frivolous
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