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.

December 22, 2014

2014 vs. 1964: Numbers speak louder than words

It’s that time of year when people look back at over the year that was 2014 (1-5). The place where I work, celebrated it’s 50th anniversary. Colleagues put together a little booklet of facts and figures with an some accompanying web pages to mark the occasion. My personal favourite factoid compares computing in 2014 with 1964. The Atlas Computer represented the state of the art in computing in 1964, and today that crown is held by SpiNNaker – a very different kind of computer.

fifty years of computing

50 years of computing (and pipe-smoking is lesson common around computers)

Sometimes, numbers speak louder than words, so here is a numerical comparison of Atlas (1964) with SpiNNaker (2014):

Feature (see this) Atlas Computer (1964) SpiNNaker (2014)
Size A very large room 19 millimetres square
Transistors 60,000 1,100,000,000
Instructions per second 700,000 3,600,00,000

One way of looking at this data is to say, based on the the instructions per second, SpiNNaker is around ~5000 times faster than Atlas. But what is probably more interesting is that SpiNNaker (which is due for completion in 2015) is expected to be used by neuroscientists and psychologists, as a platform to study problems such as Alzheimer’s disease – something that would have been impossible (and unthinkable) only fifty years ago [6,7]. Wonder where the next 50 years will take us in 2064?


  1. Anon (2014). The most-read Nature news stories of 2014 Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature.2014.16550
  2. Morello, L., Abbott, A., Butler, D., Callaway, E., Cyranoski, D., Reardon, S., Schiermeier, Q., & Witze, A. (2014). 365 days: 2014 in science Nature, 516 (7531), 300-303 DOI: 10.1038/516300a
  3. Anon (2014). 365 days: Nature’s 10, Ten people who mattered this year. Nature, 516 (7531), 311-319 DOI: 10.1038/516311a
  4. Katherine Maher (2014) What did the world make 100 million edits of in 2014? Wikimedia blog
  5. Hand, E. (2014). Comet Breakthrough of the Year + People’s choice Science, 346 (6216), 1442-1443 DOI: 10.1126/science.346.6216.1442
  6. Furber, S., Galluppi, F., Temple, S., & Plana, L. (2014). The SpiNNaker Project Proceedings of the IEEE, 102 (5), 652-665 DOI: 10.1109/JPROC.2014.2304638

April 19, 2013

Will Academic Education ever meet the skills needs of the IT Profession? #BCSDebate

“This house believes that Academic Education will never meet the skills needs of the IT Profession” via #BCSDebate

“This house believes that Academic Education will never meet the skills needs of the IT Profession” via #BCSDebate

Here’s an interesting upcoming event: a debate on the motion: “This house believes that Academic Education will never meet the skills needs of the IT profession

Universities are failing to educate graduates with the skills we need – this is the oft heard complaint by employers of IT graduates. Does the problem start in school with the dire state of ICT teaching and assessment at GCSE and A Level? [1] Should academia be trying to produce graduates with only ’employable skills’ that have a shelf life of at best a couple of years? Are employers really expecting universities to produce a mature, rounded professional with 20 years experience straight out of university? Is it reasonable to expect Academia to bridge the skills gap when employers are not prepared to provide a robust career path for IT professionals?

Academia and the IT Profession seem to be out of alignment in a way that other more mature professional career paths are not. Medicine, law, accountancy and the teaching profession provide a clear path from university to the highest levels of those careers – not so in IT. The IT Profession’s skills framework (SFIA) is only a decade old, and IT is neither a regulated or statutory profession – perhaps employers ask and expect too much of Academia, when the IT Profession is still in its infancy.”

This deliberately provocative motion conflates Education with Training as well spreading further confusion about the important differences between Computer Science and Information Technology. There’s already been some debate, including this early response from Ian Sommerville at the University of St Andrews:

“Computing systems are now ubiquitous in all areas of our professional and personal lives – which means that are incredibly diverse from personal apps for your phone to remind you to exercise to safety-critical, world-wide air traffic management systems. The notion that there is a single body of practical skills that is applicable to all of these different types of system is ludicrous as is the expectation that university courses should attempt to cover all aspects of computing practice.”

That’s a view from academia, no doubt employers will probably have a different take on the motion. David Evans and Deborah Trayhurn will be supporting the motion, with opposition from Bill Mitchell and Kevin Jones. Whatever your opinion, the debate takes place on Wednesday 12th June 2013 from 6.30pm – 9.00pm at the Armourers’ Hall, 81 Coleman Street, London, EC2R 5BJ. You can book a place at events.bcs.org/book/577, more info on twitter at #BCSDebate.

July 13, 2012

Animation 2012: Computer Science for Schools

Animation 2012 at the University of Manchester

Computer Science as a subject in mainstream UK secondary education is in a pretty sorry state [1,2,3] but it’s not all doom and gloom. While many long suffering school children are being force-fed a nauseating diet of Excel, PowerPoint and Access others are enjoying a nutritious platter of Raspberry Pi, Hack to the Future and Animated fun.

Here’s a brief report on one of these tasty appetisers: Animation 2012, a UK schools animation competition now in its fifth year.

The day kicked off with prizes being awarded for the animation competition. To get a flavour of the creativity and skill involved, you can see winning examples online.

Following the prize giving there was a carousel of activities which included:

Animation 2012 was great fun for all involved, congratulations to all this years winners, hope to see you again next year. There were 526 Schools involved from across the UK, with 914 entries. 58 students were involved in the 35 winning entries from 31 different schools. Thanks to Toby Howard, all the organisers, supporters (Google, Electronic Arts and NESTA) and associates (Computing at School, CS4FN and BAFTA young game designers) for putting on an impressive show.


  1. Steve Furber et al (2012). Computing in Schools: Shut down or restart? Royal Society Report
  2. James Robinson (2011). Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, condemns British education system: criticising division between science and arts, The Guardian
  3. Keith Stuart (2011). Michael Gove admits schools should teach computer science: education secretary recognises the failings of ICT courses, The Guardian

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

July 1, 2011

Anything that calls itself a Science, probably isn’t…

Way Cool Science Stuff by Mark A. Hicks www.markix.netScience, is a big word that gets used and abused with reckless abandon. Virtually any discipline can award itself extra kudos by adding the magic S word at the end. For example, which sounds weightier, sports studies or sports science?

This phenomenon has been noticed many times before, for example, the philosopher John Searle once remarked that:

Science has become something of an honorific term, and all sorts of disciplines that are quite unlike physics or chemistry are eager to call themselves ‘sciences‘.

A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that anything that calls itself a science probably isn’t.” –see [1,2]

So let’s make a list. Starting with things that probably aren’t a Science because they call themselves one:

We could carry on for ages with this list and eventually include:

So are maths, physics, chemistry, biology etc real sciences™ too? Using Searle’s definition, it’s difficult to say. To avoid confusion, it might be a good idea to use a subjects non-scientific original name (“biology” rather than “life science”) that way, we know (paradoxically) they are real sciences. Probably.


  1. John R. Searle (1986). Minds, Brains and Science (1984 Reith Lectures) Harvard University Press ISBN:0674576330 (see also audio from the BBC Reith lecture archive) not  Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge University Press. ISBN:052109626X (as originally stated in the first version of this post)
  2. Fuller quotation: “Science has become something of an honorific term, and all sorts of disciplines that are quite unlike physics and chemistry are eager to call themselves ‘sciences’. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that anything that calls itself ‘science’ probably isn’t — for example, Christian science, or military science, and possibly even cognitive science or social science. The word ‘science’ tends to suggest a lot of researchers in white coats waving test tubes and peering at instruments. To many minds it suggests an arcane infallibility. The rival picture I want to suggest is this: what we are all aiming at in intellectual disciplines is knowledge and understanding. There is only knowledge and understanding, whether we have it in mathematics, literary criticism, history, physics, or philosophy. Some disciplines are more systematic than others, and we might want to reserve the word ‘science’ for them.”
  3. Peter J. Denning (2005). Is computer science science? Communications of the ACM, 48 (4) DOI: 10.1145/1053291.1053309

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