hannah dee

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.

Pythagoras day

Yesterday was 5/12/13 – numbers which make up a Pythagorean triple – the sides of a right-angled triangle. A guy called Marco Matosic spotted this quirk of the date system and decided to put on an event at the Ceredigion museum, involving various people from around aber. During the day about 150 pupils from local schools came through to stroll around the exhibits and learn a bit about Pythagoras.

I was there helping to run the computer installation, with Anne Marggraf-Turley from Coleg Ceredigion and Amanda Clare from aber uni (like me).

Amanda and I setting up before the day began

Our activity was based around the golden ratio, and I’d put together three computer programs that let kids experiment with the golden ratio and – hopefully – go away with some idea of what it is. Students from Anne’s IT class at Coleg Ceredigion made some posters about the golden ratio, pentagrams, and so on, and we borrowed laptops, projectors and screens to put it all together and make a stall. Turns out 8 year olds don’t really know about ratios, but hey. We had a go at explaining them.

Looking down on the museum from the top of the balcony

Our exhibit was in the middle of the auditorium; there were about 8 different activities going on in and around the museum, but I think we had the prime spot. Which was nice. One of our computer installations was just a rotating animation with the golden spiral in it, which we had running on a projector. The second involved a webcam with the golden ratio superimposed, and the kids had to move around infront of this to try and work out whether they could find the golden ratio in their face or body or hand (or whatever).

A kid testing out whether he can find the golden ratio in his hand

Once they’d found the golden ratio in something, they were asked to draw that on their workbook.

One of my favourite student drawings – this girl said she wanted to be an artist and usually draws much better than that (!)

The other computer program I put together for this was a game – really it’s a very basic game. Indeed you could call it the most rubbish computer game ever. There’s a rectangle on the screen, and you can drag the corners, and when you think you’ve got a rectangle that has the golden ratio you double click. If you get close, it flashes different colours, goes “YAY!!!”, and lets you enter your hiscore.

Some kids playing the world’s most basic computer game whilst one of the Coleg Ceredigion students looks on

Turns out that 8 year olds really like high score tables. One kid played the game for half an hour or so. Each school was in the museum for about 2 hours, moving around the exhibits, so there was time for kids to come back to their favourites and to hang around if they wanted (or to just experience the museum, which is a cracking place to look around) so I didn’t feel too guilty about Mr Hiscore, but honestly? 30 minutes? At least he’ll recognise the golden ratio now I guess…

The result of playing a game for 30 minutes

In all the day was good fun, and exhausting. I think the schoolkids enjoyed it, and it was great working with Anne and the lads from Coleg Ceredigion, we’ll have to do that again. I think the FE students enjoyed helping out too, although it might have taken them out of their comfort zone a bit!

I’ll put the web resources up somewhere publicly shortly, along with PDFs of the posters, and will update this post then with a link.


In the last four weeks I’ve been to Gregynog Hall 3 times. Luckily for me it’s a beautiful place – a stately home in the middle of Powys, with superb gardens, and really nice cake. The first visit was with our first year students, who we take there every year for a team building weekend. The second visit was with our second year students who’re going out on industrial year. And the final visit was Monday and Tuesday of this week for a staff awayday. Here’s a picture of dawn mist over the fields in the grounds:

I think it’s great that we take the students there – the first year weekend is an intense series of team-building exercises, designed to stretch the students in terms of their interactions, their computational skills, their presentation skills and their critical thinking. We get them doing indoor stuff, outdoor stuff, and creative stuff. With the second years, it’s more about employability, so we have actual people from industry in to do mock interviews, we have an “assessment centre” type exercise, and we try to prepare them for interview and application situations before they go out to do a sandwich year. The staff awayday was more strategic, but still very useful (actually, I found it surprisingly useful and positive – I’m usually kind of cynical about these kinds of events). So all in all it has been a pleasant Gregynogging, but to be honest? I’m now pleased to be home.