hannah dee

Thinking and learning about play

I’ve just finished a MOOC (massive open online course) on play, with Futurelearn and the University of Sheffield: Exploring Play. Ideas about play have been coming up quite a bit in my work in the last few years – both in teaching (gamification, exploration) and in research (particularly in the research I’ve been doing into kids and coding). But I didn’t really know much about theoretical or practical ideas of play, particularly not outside of computing, so I signed up for a MOOC to take the broader look.

I found that earlier on in this course, the readings about play types enriched my conception of what play could be. Thinking about play in terms of taxonomies of play (rough and tumble play, imaginative play, etc.) has helped me break down what we mean when we say play, and I have found it useful to think about the things children do in terms of these taxonomies. I even found myself wondering how many different kinds of play particular activities or equipment affording, and wondering if I could alter activities to include more variety in play type. There’s an implicit assumption here, which is that play is good, and lots of types of play is better than one type of play. This has clear implications for the kinds of work we do with schoolkids (and to a lesser extent with uni students); a lot of our activities have time for exploratory play (“what does this do”). Thinking about play types leads us to try and incorporate other types of play e.g. creative play (“what can i make this do”, “what can I make with this”), mastery play (“can I get better at playing with this”), communication play (“can I use this to communicate?”). This brings more variety into the activity which may well end up with deeper learning.

The course was very broad, which I liked – I did it to get the big picture, and for that it really succeeded. We looked at cross-cultural play, online play, the spaces we play in, historical attitudes to play, disability and play…

Thinking about how those with disabilities can access play turned a lot of my ideas upside down: thinking in terms of play as activities with particular values leads to a normative understanding of play. The taxonomies provide a rich conception of what play could be, but they don’t dictate what it should be. Reading case studies about play and disability showed me that this normative conception (play should be educational, for example), doesn’t have to hold. Play doesn’t have to be something that lets children rehearse ideas for the real world. It can be something for itself – catching a ball repeatedly, fidget spinners, and other repetitive actions can all be playful in some way. These could be seen as mastery play, developing close motor skills, or they could just be play. Allowing people the time, space, and equipment to explore play with whatever actions they are able is something we need to do for our children and for ourselves.

In all I enjoyed the MOOC a lot – I think it will take a while for the ideas to settle in my mind as we touched briefly on a lot of different topics, but I also think that some of the things I’ve learned will be put in to action in my teaching and outreach activities pretty soon.

A tale of 3 engagements

For the last 9 weeks I’ve been visiting the University of Girona (UdG), and working on some research in Vicorob and Udigital. I’ve taken part in three engagement activities whilst I’ve been here – even though I don’t speak the language. It turns out that with colleagues to help translate, it’s possible to be useful even without many words, although in the first two workshops I was more of an observer/helper than a facilitator. The first of these was an underwater robotics workshop, with a visiting class or around 15 teenagers; the second of these was a wheeled robotics workshop with 9 adults in a high security prison; and the third was an “unplugged” activity looking at Artificial Intelligence and Alan Turing with about 150 teenagers in 6 consecutive groups. The rest of this post has a bit more info on each.

Underwater robotics

This workshop took place in CIRS (Centre d’Investigació en Robòtica Submarina) at UdG, and was written and led by Xevi Cufi. The group came from a nearby boys’ school, had been working on their robots back in school for a while, in groups, and had come to CIRS for the final construction and testing. These robots are made out of plumbing pipe, and have three motors. Two of these provide forwards and backwards thrust for the left and right sides of the robot, and the third gives up and down. The basic robots were complete before the workshop, and in this session the participants did final wiring (the controller is attached by a tethered wire) and water tests. Once the wiring was done, the first water test involved getting the robot to have neutral buoyancy by attaching floats to the frame, in a large bucket.

Then they had to try and make the cable neutral too, by attaching bits of float at regular spacing along the tether.

And finally the students got to use their robots in the test pool (CIRS has a massive pool for testing robots). Seeing this come together was great – the students were all fired up to run their contraptions in the water, and they all worked really well.

This project is a big project, and I think the students had been working on their robots for a couple of weeks on and off. I expect a build from scratch would take a few days, as there’s soldering, wiring, building, testing and a lot lot lot of waterproofing (fairly obviously). The payoff is fab though: they clearly got a real sense of achievement piloting their own robots around the pool, picking up objects, and trying not to get their tethers in a knot. With one underwater video camera and a live link to a monitor, which was passed between robots, the workshop really came alive. I’d like to try and run this workshop in Aberystwyth.

Wheeled robots

The second workshop couldn’t have had a more different target audience. Instead of teenage Catholic schoolboys, there were adult prisoners in the Puig de les Basses prison just north of Figueres. In this workshop (also designed and led by Xevi) we used small wheeled Arduino robots, and programmed them in groups to flash lights, display messages, and move backwards and forwards. We have done a lot of wheeled robot workshops as part of the Early Mastery project (and before), and this one followed the general format (get something to run on the robot, modify that code, get the robot to move forwards and backwards). We had about 2 hours, and the participants were working in groups. Here’s a picture of the robot (taken during preparation) – you should be able to make out the display LCD, the LEDs and the wheels in this picture.

In the workshop the participants got to grips with the flashing lights activity very quickly, and the group I was working with seemed to be having fun setting up traffic lights using the R, G and Y LEDs. When the idea of the LCD display screen was introduced, my group decided to get it to give instructions to match the traffic lights (so it said “go” on green, etc.). This was a bit more elaborate than planned – the idea was they were just going to get it to say “hello” or something then move on to the next task – but they were enjoying the coding and working a lot of things out for themselves so we just let them run with it. As soon as one of the other groups got their robot to move, everyone changed their mind and wanted to move on to the next task anyway.

I don’t have any photos of the actual workshop as security was very tight and we weren’t allowed to take in phones, cameras or anything like that. Here’s a picture of the outside of the building though:

It’s amazing how the same thing happens in every robot workshop – whether it’s with 6 year old kids or 50 year old prisoners. As soon as one of the groups gets a robot to actually move, the atmosphere changes and everything moves up a gear. There is something intrinsically motivating about writing a program on a computer, and getting it to move something in the real world. As a programming environment, they used Visualino which provides a block-based interface to Arduino C; I hadn’t seen this before but was very impressed, and I might use it in future.

AI Unplugged

The final engagement activity I have been involved in out here is based upon the AI workshop that we wrote as part of the Technocamps project. This workshop has several components, and UdG were asked to do 6 consecutive 25 minute workshops with schoolkids in the town of Banyoles, as part of their end-of-term robotics project (actually, 3 sets of 6 consecutive workshops). So with a lot of help from Eduard we created some bilingual slides (English/Catalan) and did a double-act. You can see the slides here.

In another room, Marta and Mariona were talking about STEAM and coding, and in yet another room Jordi was talking about various robotics challenges and activities, so the Udigital.edu team was out in force. Here we are having breakfast before the day begins…

The schoolkids had apparently been working on general robotics projects for a couple of weeks at the end of term, so we started by doing a tour of their demos, and saw some lovely little line followers, skittles robots, hill climbers and generally lots of excellent arduino goodies. Here’s one of their projects.

In the workshop Eduard and I ran, we had a set of votes, asking the students if they think computers can think. The way the workshop is structured, we had a vote at the start (to get their initial opinions), then we did an activity which encouraged them to think about what intelligence is, by ordering a load of things (chess computer, sheep, tree, self-driving car, kitten, human… there are about 30 things). This gets them to consider what thinking involves, without actually being explicit or telling them what we think. Then we had another vote. After this we discussed what aspects of intelligence they might think were important, and what aspects computers could do now, then we had a final vote and concluded with some talk about Alan Turing and the Turing Test.

The reason I like to get the participants to vote, repeatedly, on whether they think computers can think, is so that we can see if anyone changes their mind. In my experience (and I’ve run this workshop loads of times – maybe 50 times) people always do change their minds once they’ve thought a bit more about the question; it never ceases to surprise me how different groups can be, too. This time, some groups arrived confident that AI was possible and that computers could think. Some of the others arrived with hardly anybody in the group positive about the potential of AI. We changed some minds though – some in one direction, some in the other.

Here’s a graph of the three vote results, displayed as a proportion of those attending who said “yes” or “maybe” to the question “Can Computers Think?”

This workshop worked well, as you can see from the graph: in every group we managed to get people to think hard enough that some of them changed their minds. It was also great fun, if a bit relentless, running 6 workshops back to back. I think we saw about 150 kids.

Thanks

So thanks, Udigital, for letting me join in and see what you do in terms of outreach. It’s been a great 9 weeks of visit, and I’ve got some ideas that I definitely want to try back in Abersytwyth.

Pumpkin Hack!

On Sunday we had our first Aberystwyth Robotics Club pumpkin hack. Kids, pumpkins, flashing lights and electronics together in a fun afternoon workshop.

In the carving station, the kids hacked away at their pumpkins with kid-safe tools or gave their design to one of our high powered Dremel wielding helpers. With a suggested age range of 6-12 we weren’t going to let the attendees loose with super sharp knives or powertools, but they managed to design their pumpkins themselves and help to cut them out (or at least, carve them)

In the coding zone, we had a bunch of laptops, a bunch of Arduino nano microcontrollers, battery packs, wires and some ultra-bright LEDs. Kids wired up their own microcontrollers, with assistance from our student helpers, then programmed them in Arduino C. The programming aspect was mostly copy-and-paste but with just an hour and a bit to spend on it the wiring and the coding was sufficient to keep everyone involved.

Our final display was so much more impressive than I expected.

Here’s the “After” pic:

Here’s a google docs link to the Arduino handout if you want to try running a similar event yourself. You need a lot of helpers, as it’s quite easy to wire things up wrong, and the coding involves working out what bits to copy and paste. But it works, and we had kids as young as 6 with flashing pumpkins and big smiles. The one scary moment was when we realised that windows update had run on all of our laptops, taking out the Arduino drivers. But with the help of one of the attendees, we got around that (phew!) by booting into linux then editing perms on the USB ports.

The last Early Mastery meeting, Girona

Early last Sunday I left sunny mid-Wales for the last ever meeting in our EU Erasmus+ project “Early Mastery/Playful Coding”.

We flew from Bristol to Girona with Ryanair (who call Girona “Barcelona”, which gives some clue to its location). The cloud cover cleared as soon as we crossed the channel, and the view from the airplane was rather lovely. The Pyrenees in particular were stunning.

Once in Girona we met up with the Ysgol Bro Hyddgen crew, teachers from the school up the road in Machynlleth. A chatty evening spent in a lovely riverside bar rounded off the day of travel nicely. Monday morning, bright and early, we headed up into Girona old town for the project meeting proper.

Here’s our (now traditional) meeting arrival selfie: from left to right, Tegid (technology teacher from Bro Hyddgen) and Anna (Welsh teacher from Bro Hyddgen), Martin (schools liason teaching fellow, Aberystwyth Uni) and me, Tomi (ICT teacher from Bro Hyddgen). One of the great things about this project and these meetings in general is we’ve ended up building really good links with the school just up the road, as well as with people across the EU.

The project

Over the last 18 months I’ve written quite a few blog posts about the project. We’ve done a lot of schools work and we’ve had 5 management meetings (of which this was the last). We’ve also had 2 longer “training meetings”, where teachers and academics have tried out each other’s workshops. Every workshop we’ve written has been run by more than one group, and most (indeed all but one) have been run in 2 or 3 different countries. Impact wise we’ve done quite a lot:

  • 45 talks, seminars, training days or other events
  • 80 schools
  • 600 teachers
  • 4000 students
  • 1 book

Did I mention we’ve written a book? The book contains instructions and information for running these workshops yourself. If you’re a teacher looking for easy lessons, or a lecturer looking for cool outreach, or a professional running a code club, or just an interested parent… the book has some great ideas in it. And some typos. But that’s not the end of the world.

The book launch

Our book “Playful Coding: Engaging young minds with creative computing” has been written, collated, edited, typeset and is now not only a PDF (available for free from http://playfulcoding.udg.edu/teacher-guide/, English now, translations to follow) but is also a physical printed book which looks frankly lovely.

As a team, we are skeptical about learning-to-code initiatives that concentrate on getting the skills to get a good job. Coding should be fun, challenging and playful. We hope this comes through in the book. There’s talk about assessment and pedagogy but there’s also a lot of fun, and the activities are all fundamentally cross curricular and hopefully playful.

The meeting concluded with a formal book launch where local teachers came to pick up a physical copy and chat with us over coffee and cake. It was really cool to see so many local teachers turn up to pick up a book in English – we will offer the other project languages (Spanish, Catalan, Romanian, Italian, French, Welsh) shortly but the first to be finished was our one common language.

Underwater robotics with kids

One workshop that’s not in the book is Xefi Cufi’s underwater robotics workshop for kids. It needs some fairly specialised kit… and a swimming pool. But it was great to see that in action too. Here are some junior roboteers building their chassis:

Here’s Eduard showing off the finished product:

And here’s their underwater robotics test pool…

What next?

It’s been a hectic, fascinating, challenging project and at times it’s felt a bit chaotic. I’m still slightly surprised that we’ve managed to do everything we said we would, so well, in the time we had: not only write and run and test workshops, but also write a book. We’re academics, teachers, researchers, outreach officers, postgrads and classroom assistants from 5 different countries but we’ve become a team. I’ve loved the collaborative aspect of the project and seeing how other countries work has been eye opening. My own practice has improved, and I’m sure that some of my ideas have helped to improve practice in other parts of the world, and that’s such a great feeling.

In the wake of Brexit it’s hard to know where we go now. The consortium worked well together and we did some great stuff; there are plans to submit a follow-on grant too. Will I be on it? Well they say they’d like me to be, but in the absence of any firm plans it’s hard to push for that: as a brit, I’m a liability on a Euro project and will remain so until there are serious assurances around research and education funding. I don’t see that happening very soon.

Which is very sad indeed. We’ve done some good work on this project.

On the plus side, I have a sabbatical semester 2 next year, and they do underwater robots, so… I think I’ll be back. Hasta la vista.

Using video in teaching

I gave a talk today about using short videos in teaching, to the Aberystwyth University Teaching and Learning conference (info here). The conference is an annual event which serves as a showcase for best practice in the uni, and it’s always interesting to see what people are up to. As part of my prep for the talk I did a lot of thinking about the different uses of video in learning and teaching, and about the different types of video I’ve put together. So I thought I’d do a blog post about that.

If you’re interested in the how, as well as the what and why, you can find my slides on Google Drive here.

Uses of video

Illustration of a visual point: some things are just best illustrated with a picture or a video. There are lots of examples of this in computer vision, here’s one showing a moving average motion detection. This is really hard to do in slides, without video.

Illustration of a phenomenon that is kinda hard to do in person: sometimes – maybe because things are dangerous, or there’s a piece of kit that’s really expensive, it can be difficult to “take the students to the phenomenon”. So video is a way of bringing the phenomenon to the students. An example of this is a video I made for a friend from the Welsh Crucible program, whose wife was teaching Sylvia Plath’s bee poems to her 6th formers – I called the video Beekeeping for poets. It’s a bit scrappy but it gets the ideas across. This was a very early foray into video making for me, so it’s not got sound or anything. But I like it anyway.

Illustration of a concept I find tricky: sometimes I’m just not that confident about a particular topic. Particularly with the details of algorithms that get complex, I often worry about tripping up in a lecture. These topics are also topics that students probably want to revisit more than once, so the video serves several purposes: it gives me a bit of breathing space and additional confidence in the lecture, and it also gives the students an easy way to repeat the difficult bit. An example of this is my DES encryption video from information security section of CS270. Graphically it’s not great, but practically, it’s saved me a lot of stress:-)

These three videos also illustrate three different types of video: the screencast, the video-clips-and-captions, and the canned presentation.

Other reasons to use video include summarisation, previews, simplifications, and the option to introduce new voices. One thing I really want to look into in the future is bringing in interviews with practitioners, probably by recording Skype/Hangouts calls.

Playful coding training meeting, Girona

I’m just back from our penultimate project meeting on the Playful Coding project. It’s been a good year-and-a-bit of working, playing, talking to kids, and talking to teachers. After the last week we’ve really made progress on our main output too, which is a book for teachers and people who want to engage school-aged students with programming and computational thinking using playful workshops.

The Wales team this session were myself, Wayne Aubrey and Nigel Hardy from Aberystwyth University, and Tomi Rowlands, Sam Roberts, and Gwennan Philips from Ysgol Bro Hyddgen in Machynlleth. One of the real wins of projects like this is the extra time you get to spend with cool local people as well as the time you spend chatting to teachers and lecturers from other countries – we’ve come up with some good ideas and I think the links we have with Bro Hyddgen now are great.

In May, Girona has a flower festival which means that there are hundreds (literally, hundreds) of floral displays across the town. It also meant that the town was fairly full (hotels were busy and the streets filled up during the afternoon). But we were working pretty much non stop so that didn’t bother us too much.

The aim of the project is to write, test and revise workshop activities for schoolkids, and then to write a book explaining what we’ve done and what we’ve learned. As we’re nearing the end now, we have been mostly writing and testing activities. The group split into 3 sub-groups, to work on different aspects of our remaining tasks, and over the course of the week, we visited three schools and ran 8 workshops as well as adding something like 50 pages of text to our book. Busy busy. Here’s the group shot at a school in Figueras, where we’d just run two parallel workshops and a book editing session:

Figueras is famous for one particular guy: Salvador Dali. His museum is there and after we’d been in the school a full day (9-4) we got to visit the museum. It is definitely a museum to recommend – Dali didn’t just fill it with pictures, there are sculptures and the very building is surrealist. If you get to go try to get a tour as the tour guide was great at explaining what was actually going on behind the art. Believe me, there’s a lot going on behind the art. From 6-8 that evening we gathered in a coffee bar to have a Dali-themed Scratch Hackathon. Here’s a picture of Wayne and I working on our respective Scratch programs. I thought it was a lovely idea to get us staff engaging with Scratch and playful coding – if you spend all your time talking about how coding should be fun without actually doing any fun coding… it can get difficult to maintain the enthusiasm:)

Eduard Muntaner (EduardM on scratch and on twitter) has put together a studio of the scratch outputs we made that evening – there are some fun animations. I made a video activated Dali face where the moustache twirls when you move infront of your laptop camera: you can play it here.

We visited Escola Veinat in Salt (a suburb of Girona) the next day, and ran workshops on Mindstorms and on Scratch. The Scratch workshop had been written by the Romanian team, was being delivered by the Catalan team and my job was to observe, along with an Italian colleague. This multiple observers approach is one of the real strengths of these training meetings – we try out each others’ materials, and we critique them, and we revise them. They’re actually getting really good now. Here I am in the classroom, trying to observe rather than help. It was fairly easy not to help too much as my Catalan is not very good at all…

In the evening we had a talk from Maria Antonia Canals, who is an absolute superstar in terms of pedagogical theory in Spain. She is 84 or something like that and has had the most amazing life, working in schools and in teacher training for so long and in such a creative and thoughtful way. Her specialism is the teaching of mathematics, particularly systems which make maths tangible and she’s invented some really superb systems for explaining abstract concepts to little kids.

On the penultimate day, we went to St George’s School, which is an English language instruction school outside of Girona where we could run 4 parallel workshops. I ran the AppInventor workshop with some 13-year-olds, which after a couple of technology related hiccups went quite well. The kids were amazingly quick to pick it up so even though we’d lost a bit of time to setup, everyone managed to write a basic drawing app and get it onto their phones/tablets.

Whilst I was working on the AppInventor workshop my Aber colleague Nigel was helping out with a Scratch workshop. I think the other workshops were all scratch activities, actually – the school is a 3-18 school so we were able to run workshops, in English or in French, across all age groups.

It was then back to the University of Girona for a quick tour of their underwater robotics lab, and then another afternoon spent working on our book. The book is getting there, the robots are awesome.

Playful coding training meeting: Le Creusot, France

We’re just back from a playful coding EU Erasmus+ meeting in Le Creusot, France. The project is really coming together now: we’ve been up and running for nearly a year and the project website now has a lot of content and we’re beginning to pull together a teacher’s guide.

The aim of last week’s meeting was to look at how different people implemented the activities in different contexts, to check that the information we have is good enough for people to pick up and use our workshops, and to think through next steps for the teacher’s guide. It’s been a busy week of thinking, talking, writing, teaching, and testing workshops on local kids.

We were lucky to be able to take four people from Aber Uni this time: myself, Wayne Aubrey (who’s been to the last two meetings so now knows the project well), Amanda Clare, and Mark Neal. We also travelled with Tomi from a local high school (Ysgol Bro Hyddgen). Here’s our traditional “arriving at the meeting” selfie.

For much of the week we were sat in a meeting room discussing the content of the workshops, the presentation of the workshops, and different ways we can organise these so that teachers can make the most of the materials we’ve produced.

Discussions included

  • “Do the workshops have the right titles?”
    (answer: some of them!)
  • “How can we structure these so that there’s a natural flow or network?”
    (answer: it might not be possible, as there’s a real range of activities ranging from beginner’s workshops linking poetry with animation, aimed at 8 year olds and extended workshops talking about plot development and story structure as well as coding, aimed at older kids through to Arduino and other robotic stuff like this workshop which requires specific kit and teacher skills.
  • “How can we work together on a teacher’s guide to help people get the most out of this?”
    (do we want something interactive, or a PDF, or a book, or what?)

We did some practical workshops, with local kids, as well as talking about structure and organisation and plans. I ran a workshop on Artificial Intelligence, which was quite the challenge: 12 kids, under 10, all French. My French is quite good, but not quite good enough to discuss philosophical ideas about intelligence and the Turing test with under-10s. But I gave it a good shot, and had some very welcome linguistic support from the local Le Creusot team. In the AI workshop we do a series of activities which explore ideas around intelligence and embodiment, and at the end of each activity we vote on the question “Can computers think?“.

The aim is to get the kids thinking, not to get them to take a particular stance. Indeed my hope in writing the workshop is that people will consider ideas about what thinking is and what it means for a machine to be intelligent: the aim is to change some minds. So from that perspective the workshop worked. Top tip, though, if you want to run the workshop in France: the chatbot Jeanneton, whilst French, is probably not age-appropriate for 9 year olds.

In each of the workshops we ran we also had observers, and I observed a robot workshop written by the French team. This was really very good fun – POB robots are drag-and-drop coding vehicles with some simple sensors, and the kids really got into it. Here’s some pictures of the robots in action.

In all, it was an interesting and challenging week which really made me think about schools engagement in a more structured way. It’s particularly inspiring to see the kinds of workshops that the other groups are proposing, and I’m really looking forward to hosting everyone in Aberystwyth for the next meeting in March.

If you want to find out more, Amanda’s written a blog on the meeting too, you can like us on Facebook to keep up with what’s going on, and we’ve got a twitter hashtag

Early mastery/playfulcoding meeting, Craiova

Last week, I went to Romania for an EU ERASMUS+ project meeting about computing in schools. There were four of us from west Wales on the trip – Tomi Rowlands and Erin Good from Ysgol Bro Hyddgen, in Machynlleth, and Wayne Aubrey and myself from Aberystwyth University. The project has been running for a while now and this was our third physical meeting (you can find my blogs on previous meetings here: Perugia; Girona). The aim is to share best practice and materials which can help kids to learn to code in a playful way – it’s a fun project and we’re starting to make some real progress. You can see the project website here: http://playfulcoding.eu, and if you want to keep up to date you can “like” us on Facebook.

When your starting point is Aberystwyth, travel to anywhere is complicated. To get to Craiova, we had to first get to Luton Airport. Then we spent a night in Bucharest (fitting in a bit of sightseeing), and then it was a 3-4 hour train journey to Craiova. I do love travelling, particularly around new countries, and the journey is absolutely part of the fun. For instance – the departure board at Bucharest train station was quite something:

Upon arrival in Craiova we had to find the University, which was actually fairly easy. Here’s our obligatory “West Wales Team arrives at meeting” selfie, photobombed by Joan from the Bourgogne team with some style…

The focus of the first day of the meeting was to consolidate where we were with our coding activities: each site is writing up activities that they do with kids, and then other sites are testing them out. We’re making a lot of progress but as is often the case we could be faster. I have a bunch of things I need to write up for public consumption, and also we have a bunch of activities we’re supposed to be trialling in local schools. So part of the first day was a re-cap on where we are and a little bit of minor wrist-slapping for those of us who need to get into schools more. The hope is that each site will contribute 3-4 activities, which will give us a really strong resource with 20+ fun coding workshops written up well, and then tested in a different country or two. We’re getting there!

The focus of the second day was looking at our next task: this is a big one. We need to write a Teachers’ Guide to help people in schools use the materials we’re pulling together. This involves working out how to structure the workshops, how to highlight links between the workshops, and how to represent any dependencies. Will people want them organised by equipment? Language? Interdisciplinary links? …

Here’s Xevi Cufi of the University of Girona introducing the second day:

We concluded with a visit to a school – one of the Romanian partners, Liceul Tehnologic “Constantin Ianculescu”. It’s always interesting to see inside schools; the classrooms here seemed fairly traditional (lines of desks, very well-behaved and friendly kids) but the stuff the kids were doing was really quite advanced, particularly mathematically. Here’s Marius Marian of Craiova University explaining some old posters on the wall:

Unfortunately we had to dash back to the station in order to catch a train, so we missed the Scratch Programming lesson. But it was a fascinating trip, and the project is really beginning to motor now.

Attempting a record: a successful event!

On Saturday 13 June, at 30 sites across the UK, people gathered to learn how to make simple Android apps. The workshop we used was my Android programming family fun day, and we decided to make the first hour of the workshop the actual record attempt.

It turns out that the Guinness World Records (GWR) people take it all reassuringly seriously. So each site needed the following:

  • Two witnesses, independent of BCSWomen and the host organisation (in this case, Aberystwyth University – we had Rachel Seabrook, who I met at Science Cafe, and Moya Neale, who I met at my dance class)
  • Two independent stewards who verified the numbers on the day (we had Tomi Rowlands of Ysgol Bro Hyddgen, and Rob Buchan-Terrey, who’s a STEMnet Ambassador).
  • Two timekeepers with experience of timing events (we had Mike Clarke and Andy Starr, both of whom are experienced cyclists and have done timekeeping for sporting events).

All of these monitors and stewards needed to fill in reports on what they did and saw, to convince the Guinness people that we are really doing what we say we do.

So at 10.30 precisely, across the country, using synchronised clocks, our timekeepers blew their whistles, and we all did an hour of coding. At the end of the hour, the whistles blew again, and we cheered knowing that we’d done our best. The app we all built together was one where you tap a button, and the phone goes Meow. Not the most exciting of apps, but it’s not bad for an hour coding when a lot of people haven’t done anything like this before. Here’s the Aber site’s cat’s chorus:

The rest of the day was spent building whatever apps people wanted to build, which was great. Questions I got asked included:

  • What noise does a penguin make?
  • How can I detect when my phone is pointing north?
  • How can I get a line instead of a dot in my drawing app
  • How can I link to a YouTube video?
  • How can I make a button do something different each time?
  • How does recursion work in AppInventor? (thanks Fred – there’s always one person who pushes the limits)

We had some cool games, including reaction time based games, and target-practice type games; drawing apps; apps which linked writers to videos about that writer’s work, and a barking compass which went WOOF when the device pointed north. There were a lot of partially completed apps, but everyone got something working.

In all, a fun day. And today we got the count of participants: 1093 people UK-wide spent Saturday writing an app, working on a workshop written by me. That makes me kinda proud, that does. We won’t know if we officially got the record for a while yet, but… that’s 1093 people who’ve had a fun day of coding, led by a technical woman. Maybe we even changed some perspectives on how fun programming can be, and what programming is like, and what programmers look like…

It takes loads of people just to put on one event. In Aber I’d like to thank, in no particular order, Moya, Rachel, Tomi, Rob, Andy and Mike our officiators; Sarah Bizby in Communications at AU who helped with all the event stuff and bookings and so on; Amanda Clare, Wayne Aubrey, Roger Boyle, Fred Long, Chris Price, Neil Taylor from AU for helping with the teaching, and also shifting equipment and putting up posters and generally being awesome. Anne Marggraf-Turley from Coleg Ceredigion deserves big thanks too, for helping with publicity, translation, and teaching support on the day. Nationally, there have been amazing people helping out – Gillian Arnold led the whole thing, Shamim Begum did locations, Deb Hopkins-Hurt did (and is still doing) GWR liaision, and there really have been an army of awesome women behind and in front of the screens. Yay BCSWomen!.

Teaching computer vision

I’m really pleased to be teaching computer vision this year. It’s the subject I research in, it’s what my PhD is in, and it’s my favourite part of computing. Challenging, mathematical, and very very visual. The previous lecturer (Fred Labrosse) is on sabbatical this year, and it’s great to take over from someone as good as Fred; the materials (blackboard, reading lists, slides) are all very thorough. So all I need to do is to update them to my style, shuffle the syllabus a bit, think about assessment, and make fancy videos demonstrating the algorithms we’ll be covering.