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.

Old College minecraft and robotics workshop

On Wednesday, Aber Robotics Club put on a day of coding, gaming and robotics in Old College. We ran two workshops: one on Minecraft, and one on Mindstorms (lego robots). Each had about 30 kids in, and the aim was to have a techy day that taught attendees something new, but that was also fun: it was a summer holiday workshop after all.

In the Mindstorms lego robots workshop we did a mixture of activities – most of which I’ve blogged about before. We did the “program a humanoid robot” exercise, where we get kids to write down programs for their parents (who end up blindfold). We did the “steer a lego robot around a track” using remote control. And we did the “customise your lego robot then have a bit of a fight” Robot Wars style event to finish. These are all tried and tested activities which work really well together and made for a good day, with enough content and learning, and enough fun and chaos too.

We had also had a visit and a talk from Laurence Tyler of Aberystwyth Computer Science, who works in our space robotics group. He talked about robots in space, mars rovers, sattellites, Philae, and all sorts of other cool stuff. He brought along Blodwen, our scale model of the ExoMars lander, and explained how stuff made in Aberystwyth is actually going to end up on Mars. The kids asked all sorts of excellent questions and listened attentively throughout, which was great.

Over in the Minecraft room, the aim was to try and build bits of the Old College building colaboratively. There was apparently quite a bit of destruction as well as construction, but when I popped in at lunchtime I saw some fairly recognisable college parts so they all managed to get something built in the end.

In the afternoon, the Minecraft crew had an introduction to programming in Minecraft, starting with a demo of Jim Finnis’s castle generation software. Which opened quite a few eyes, and got a big “whoa!” from the audience: it’s a super piece of code that just builds amazing castles programmatically. One of the key ideas you have to get in order to code in Minecraft is the idea of a 3D coordinate system (x,y and z): I’m not sure that many of the kids had done that before so there was quite a steep learning curve.

We’ll be revisiting these workshops in the next couple of weeks to see what went well and what needs to be worked on: the kids really liked them both. The minecraft one has more of a setup overhead, as we needed to get hold of enough computers (30 Raspberry Pis, in the end) and sort out networking, a server, and so on. The lego robots workshop is a more polished event now (we’ve run it a fair few times). I’m fairly sure that we’ll run them both again, but they might need a bit of tweaking; in particular I’d like to think up a cool way of working with 3d coordinates for the minecraft one, and I also think it might be good to introduce more “not-sitting-at-a-computer” bits.

Electromagnetic Field 2016

Last weekend was Electromagnetic Field, the UK’s main Hacker/maker camp. It’s an outstanding opportunity for meeting up with tinkerers, coders and makers from across the UK and beyond. I was at the first EMF (in 2012, blog post here) talking about women in tech, and went back to this one to talk about schools outreach and the work we’re doing with kids and families. I spoke about schools and kids engagement in general, but also more specifically about our EU playfulcoding project. You can see my talk here:

And you can view the slides here, if you just want slides, not talk.

The talk was well-received but not full, but that’s fine – one of the cool things about EMFcamp is the sheer range of stuff going on. Over the course of the weekend I went to talks on computer history, quantum effects in imaging, IT security from a sociological standpoint, penetration testing, hardware hacking, animating dinosaurs and the mathematics of the Simpsons. I also went to hands-on workshops on VR, deep machine learning, card-based reasoning (“having daft ideas”) and paper circuits. These were all part of the official program – submitted and approved before the event, allowing people to schedule and so on.

There were also lots of minor “installation” type hacks around the place, and a whole heap of drop in activities. I played some computer games in the retro gaming tent (Sonic the hedgehog), went in a musical ball pit, watched fire pong, and generally strolled around the site going WOW.

I had never been in a ball pit before. I am so going to make one of these.

“The Robot Arms” was the name of the camp bar, and it had an API so you could look online to see how much beer had been sold. Someone even wrote a script to calculate how many drinks had been sold in the last minute so you could tell how busy it was without going down to check. All the barstaff and indeed everyone at the event were volunteers which gives the whole thing a really nice cooperative feeling. I was sat eating my veggie breakfast in the food area on Sunday morning and someone asked for help setting out the chairs at the main stage, and about 10 of us just got up and did it. Loads of my friends there did shifts on the bar, or marshalling in the carpark (I spoke, and figured that was probably enough:). At the closing ceremony Jonty (one of the main organisers) asked everyone who’d volunteered or spoken to stand up, and I swear about 25% of the people there did. This really did make for a really friendly event.

What a cool pub sign, eh?

Much to my embarrassment, I fell out of a hammock installation on the last night though. I was fine getting in there, but the dismount was … inelegant.

This has made my return to Aberystwyth a couple of days late, via the excellent first aid tent and the A&E at Guildford hospital (Royal Surrey). Nothing’s broken, which is a relief, but my gosh it’s all a bit bruised.

my opinion of hammocks is not positive

In all – I loved it, again. I’ll definitely go in 2018.

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.

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.

Lego robots in Pembrokeshire

I’ve been helping out at Aber Robotics Club this year, which is a weekly after school club for local schoolkids. We got invited down to do a workshop in Pembrokeshire as part of “The Cheerful Project” who put on workshops in rural Pembrokeshire, so Steve filled his boot with Lego Mindstorms, got up early on a Saturday, met up with me and with Martin (our new institute schools outreach guy who doesn’t have a webpage yet) and we headed south to somewhere I’d never heard of. Whilst I’m not a huge fan of 7am starts on a Saturday, the weather was glorious and you can’t beat the coast road south of Aber for views. So it was feeling like a good day before we’d even got there.

Upon arrival we met the local organiser who filled us in on details about the people – mixed groups of adults and kids, with the youngest kid being 6, most kids 8-10 and a handful of teenagers. Perfect for lego. We decided to start off with a “programming” task though, with a humanoid robot that could only understand three commands (forwards, left and right) needing to perform a figure 8 path around some tables. The humanoid robot roles were played admirably by parents with blindfolds on. The next photo might look like some bizarre hostage situation but I assure you that it is a photo of a robot workshop.

Much to the kids’ amusement it turns out that the parents weren’t very good at following instructions blindfold. The exercise is a useful one to discuss robots, why they never do what you tell them to, and how you might program them. We also discussed sensors: the robots couldn’t see but it turns out they all navigated a little using sound, which is interesting.

We then got the kids building Lego robots, and once they were mostly done we broke for lunch, out the back of the hall. Quite a nice place to sit and eat some lovely food, provided by the Cheerful Project for us roboteers.

The kids then tethered the robots to our tablets, using Bluetooth, and remote controlled them. A few practice runs were carried out…

And then each of our junior roboteers piloted their own lego robot around the same figure 8 path that the “humanoid robot” had failed on earlier. To finish with we got all the roboteers in a circle and let them have a big robot fight. Because… why not eh? It’s fun.

All the kids seemed to really enjoy it, and I think most of the parents did too. As we were packing up one of the mums came in from the carpark to let us know that her kid had just said “this was the best day of my life!”. Which is the kind of feedback that it’s really nice to get.

Here’s Steve packing up the car.

We stopped for honey ice cream in Aberaeron on the way back too. Sometimes it is worth getting up at 7am on a Saturday.

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.

Early mastery/playful coding meeting, Perugia

Last week I went to an EU project meeting in Perugia, with Wayne from Aberystwyth Computer Science, and Tomi & Tegid from Ysgol Bro Hyddgen. Here’s Tomi about to leave Wales (Tomi drove to the airport, making the travel for the four of us actually fairly cheap, given cheap flights Bristol to Pisa then a lengthy but fun train journey across Italy).

The aim of the project is to develop fun, playful coding activities for use in schools. We’re building a platform (playfulcoding.eu) where we’ll share activities written at all the sites, aimed at schoolteachers and people doing outreach in schools. This meeting centered around the evaluation and review of activities; each site (school or uni) had to read through and revise the activities of other sites, and the plan is that we now take these back to our own countries and try them out.

In this way we end up with a set of activities, coded for age and group size and equipment, that have been tried and tested at different sites across the EU. Here’s Alfreddo, the local organiser in Perugia, with Wayne and a robot based around an android device. These robots are cool – they use the android as a processor, camera and so on, and the robot (arduino based) just receives commands from the phone.

Wayne and I reviewed an arduino robot activity, and a scratch activity; we’ll now work out how to run these here in Aberystwyth. We might need to buy some arduino robots – here’s some more of the Italian team showing us the robots they used:

One of the highlights of an EU project is getting to see a bit more of the EU (as well as meeting interesting people and doing cool work, obviously). Here’s a Raphael fresco, which is in old Perugia. I love the three guys sitting in a row, their faces are so perfect, they could be waiting for a bus now.

Couldn’t they?

We spent an extra night (on our own account, not part of the project) in Pisa on the way back to do some sightseeing. Here’s a photo of a jazz bar on the Pisa riverbank. I do have some of the more traditional Pisa photos, but I’m sure you can imagine them. It was good to stay the extra day as it gave us time to relax a bit, chatting with Tomi and Tegid about schools in general, without the pressure of the project meeting. I think we might sort out a trip to their school to talk to the year 12-13 kids about university in general, for example.

Next job: work out which activities we’re going to revise and run here in Wales, then get on and find a slot in a local school(s). Oh, and maybe buy a couple more robots…

Computer science without computers, in Africa

For our summer holiday this year we went to Malawi. This is quite an exotic destination (for us), but R’s sister and her husband are out there doing a year volunteering on a farm which grows maize (inter alia) for Malawian farmers, and so we jumped at the opportunity to visit. During our visit we wanted to pop into some schools, and my sister-in-law Terri asked around and managed to make contact with Lisumbwe school, in Monkey Bay, and arranged for us to lead a morning’s class in computing. Here’s a google maps link, if you want to see it on a satellite, it’s quite a big school and one of the larger and more successful ones in the region, apparently.

We also wanted to drop off some kit. We’d collected some laptops (4 – two of ours, and two from mates, which was all we could fit in our backpacks) and on our second day in the area we visited the school to hand these over; these were secondhand machines which we’d cleaned and tidied up, then installed Rachel on them. Rachel is a set of offline educational resources for schools, for areas without internet. These machines will probably not be used for students – the school had hardly any computers (one for the secretary, one for the headmaster, maybe a couple of others), they’ll be useful for the teachers though.

When we dropped off the computers we took the opportunity to ask how many learners we could expect for our session the following week, and what kind of room we’d be in. We were expecting a class or two, but the headteacher had other plans: we were getting all of year one (15 year olds) and all of year three (17 year olds)… which was actually the whole school as the year two and four had finished their exams and left. About 240 kids. So our next step was to rope in all the helpers we could (Terri helped, as did George and Perdi, a couple who were staying at the same house).

SO a workshop session, lasting an hour or so, for 240 kids, with no power or internet? We set to scratching our heads, and within a couple of days had narrowed our plans down to two alternatives. Idea number 2 was a workshop on algorithms and sorting, and that would be a good workshop if there was limited space and a stage (we could get groups up on stage and sort themselves, using different methods, and we’d get across the idea of a process/algorithm/recipe, and the idea of efficiency). Idea number 1 was a robot programming workshop, which is a variant of a tutorial we do with our students in Aberystwyth. In this workshop you give the students a set of instructions (turn left, turn right …) and blindfold one student who becomes the robot, and the others have to write the program for the robot. This workshop gets across ideas of what a program is, what a robot is, and some simple ideas about structures (loops and so on) and precision (does the robot really turn right 90 degrees?).

On the day we turned up actually prepared to run either workshop – sorting or robots – depending on the space in the room. Fortunately the room was fairly big so we went for the robots workshop (the more active option). I was seriously nervous going in, but as soon as we entered the room we got a cheer. Roger jumped on to the stage instead of using the steps and got another cheer. At this stage… 20 seconds in… it became clear that we were going to be fine.

The workshop starts with a Q&A: what’s a computer? What’s a robot? What’s a program?

Then we move on to some sample programs on the stage. We used Roger-the-Robot for this; indeed we tried to make it that for the examples, the robots were guys and the people doing the instructing were women. And I did most of the talking, not Roger, for the same reason: gender roles are rather traditional in Malawi, and it’s good to show them something a bit different.

We then distributed materials to groups of about 10, and got the students to assign themselves to various team roles. Obviously, one person was to be the robot. The other roles are also quite important though; our task was to move beans, one at a time, so we needed a giver (to hand the robot a bean when it is close enough) and a taker at the other end. A key thing about this workshop is that you write down the program, then you read it out to the robot (it’s about planning, not just about instructing on-the-fly). The way we enforced this was to have one person who was the writer, and another person who was the caller. The other team members were the thinkers.

As for kit, to run this workshop with 240 kids, you need to have a big bag of beans, a whistle, a stopwatch, 24 blindfolds, 24 pencils, and 24 bits of paper. We took everything with us, as we knew the school had no resource: pencils and paper are not things that are just lying around for the taking in Malawi.

The five helpers walked around the room checking each group to be sure that they understood. The room was loud and everyone threw themselves into the task. All the teachers had lined up at the back of the hall to see what these strangers were up to, but once the groupwork started the teachers were joining in too. One of them said to me “This is a good lesson – they have never done anything like this before, and look! They are even having fun” which was lovely.

After about an hour, we concluded the groupwork with a timed “How many beans can your robot move in three minutes” final contest, and we finished up with another Q&A session on what they’d have done differently. We also took more general questions from the floor; the questions were interesting, and not that different to the questions you’d get doing a similar session in a UK school. How do you get into university? What do my students do? What kind of jobs do people do if they do computing? Why would you want to build a robot when you could employ a person?

As we left, there were kids chasing us down the corridor asking questions. Lots of the boys were wearing the blindfolds as bandanas, and the girls were wearing them as scarves (it seems we’d provided the cool school uniform accessory of the day). George and Perdi (who, in their early 20s, were closer in age to the kids) both developed quite a fan club. We asked the deputy head if any teachers had any questions about the laptops. The only question they had was “Have you got any more?”, so they seem to be OK with the technology. And if anyone’s passing Lisumbwe school with a spare computer, drop in, tell them we sent you:-)