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

Lovelace 2016

The BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium is a one-day conference for women undergrad and masters students in computing. The centrepiece of the day is a poster contest, and to enter the contest all students need do is write a short abstract (250 words). I started this conference, back in 2008, and run it every year in different universities around the UK. Last year we had just over 150 attendees, and this year we’re hoping to beat that.

SO in March this year we’ll be at Sheffield Hallam Uni, with support from the University of Sheffield, and we’ve got a great speaker lineup coming together – I’ll probably blog about that again in a couple of weeks. Thanks to generous sponsorship we can refund travel for poster contest finalists, and this year we hope to be able to cover about 80 places. If you can, talk to students and encourage them to apply, as confidence is often an issue. There are some abstracts from previous years here if you want to see the type of thing that’s been submitted before: some sample abstracts.

This is our 9th event, and we are expecting a good turnout. We’ve grown year on year and now have a good reputation with students and industrial sponsors. So please encourage any undergrads you know to apply – it’s fun and it looks good on the CV. And there will be cake.

If you’re a student, what are you waiting for?

Here’s the call for abstracts:, you’ve got just under 2 weeks to write 250 words.

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:, 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.

What I learned from going to every exercise class once

I’m just back from the workout called Insanity, which was the last class in my personal mission to try every type of exercise class offered at Aber Uni at least once (except yoga – you’ve got to draw the line somewhere). I saved Insanity for last, you can probably guess why.

Being a proper nerd of course I kept a spreadsheet, with comments and some estimates (percentage of class completed, approximate proportion of guys, that kind of thing). So here are some stats:

  • Highest max heartrate reached: Insanity. Today. 140bpm
  • Lowest max HR: Pilates, where most sessions I got up to 70bpm max
  • Lowest heartrate reached: also Pilates, 53bpm. Those classes can be relaxing
  • Maximum steps per class: an hour’s Zumba class with 4725 steps
  • Maximum steps per minute of class: a 45 minute Dumbbell workout
  • Hardest class: a tie for work-it-circuits, Bootcamp, and insanity. I’m sure that the nice man who teaches ordinary circuits will be disappointed to learn this.
  • Highest proportion of blokes: Circuits, with an estimated 75% bloke proportion
  • Lowest proportion of blokes: 6 classes had no guys at all (2 of the Aerobics classes, one of the Pilates, one of the Zumbas, a Piyo and a Bootcamp)

The project has taken me 2 months, and has involved going to 2 or 3 classes a week, 23 classes in total. To my surprise, there aren’t any which I’ve actively disliked. The only one I don’t think I’ll return to is PiYo, and that’s because it’s a bit too much like yoga. I think my favourites are dumbbell workout, bodyfit, and (surprisingly for me) bootcamp. But I’ll go back to pretty much all of the others too.

For any aber people wondering… here’s the timetable.

How can tech companies attract more women graduates?

Employers who want to change the gender ratio within their workforce have some difficult problems to solve. First amongst these problems is the size of the pool you’re fishing from: there just aren’t that many computer science women to choose from, so finding women who come ready for the workforce can be hard. Obviously you can look outside of the computing grad population – either look for non-grads and apprentices, or look for a broader range of degree subjects – but being a computer science lecturer I’m pretty convinced of the value of a computing degree. And many of the employers we talk to like computing grads too.

So, looking specifically at companies who want to employ computer science graduates there seems to be a real push to employ more women at the moment. I’ve been called by two big name employers in the last couple of months, and I’ve been contacted by a recent grad working in recruitment at a third big name consultancy, and the stalls we have at the BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium are getting more and more popular each year.

We have an alumni group on Facebook full of women who’ve been to the Lovelace in the past, many of whom are now in grad jobs. In order to find out what kinds of events and recruitment strategies they’d find interesting, I decided to ask outright. There were a couple of suggestions (CV workshops and women-only assessment centres) from companies, and other suggestions came from the students themselves. Generally, the thread was quite interesting.

  • You have to get your adverts checked over by someone who’s not a guy. A lot of tech firms (particularly smaller ones) have a bit of a macho, brogrammer culture, and job ads which ask for rock-star programmers who are happy to work long hours, drink beer, and play computer games are appealing to a small subset of the universe of possible employees. If you really want that kind of employee that’s fine, I guess, but you might as well stop pretending that you’re bothered about diversity.
  • There was broad agreement that the students would like honest feedback and application support: CV workshops can be useful, but so can interview practice and mock assessment centre practice. Companies who are willing to provide training events, with decent feedback, and who can give tips on applications (particularly applications to that company, if it’s a good fit) would definitely be of interest.
  • The idea of women-only assessment centres got a mixed response. Lots of women don’t like events or strategies which are exclusively targeted at one gender.
  • The impression I got was that more balanced (less macho) assessment centres would be a good thing. This could mean women-led assessment centres, and assessment centres where there were balanced teams during teamwork exercises, would be better than outright women-only sessions. It’s true that there’s something odd about being the only woman in a group when you’re being assessed on groupwork (guys are statistically more likely to interrupt and take over) and anecdotally, this seems like it does happen fairly often in company assessment centres. Employers can get around this by having women facilitators1, ensuring that for group exercises there are balanced sets of people where possible (it’s better to have a bunch of all guy groups and a couple of 50-50 groups, for example, than have each group with just one woman in it), and making it clear that they’re taking this kind of thing into account in the job ad.
  • Offer industrial year placements and summer jobs to students in lower years; this gives both company and student a chance to see what it’s like actually working for a particular employer. There’s less of a scary commitment on both sides, and you really will get a feel for what a student can achieve.
  • There was a real interest in events that give a feel for the culture of a work place. Tours of the workplace. Meeting people who work there. Chatting to real engineers, preferably women, in an informal setting, is also a really useful thing to offer. Seeing how people work together in teams and how communication happens in the workplace is interesting to some of the women students & grads. One person suggested that actually doing some kind of activity (maybe a quiz?) in teams to see how people really worked together would be a useful way of finding out what working in the place was going to be like. I think that coming after “the year of the Tableflip”, in which technology workplace culture in general has seen a lot of bad press, students are thinking more and more about cultural fit with a company. If the employer doesn’t have any women engineers who can chat to applicants … why is that?
  • And finally get a stall at the Lovelace. At the BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium we have a bunch (by which I mean “over 100”) of great women students, all of whom have chosen to give up a day from their vacation time in order to come to a computing conference. Employers who come along get to have a conversation with the students directly. To find out more about this option, talk to me:-)

Obviously there’s more to a diverse workforce than just getting people in the door in the first place (support and retention is really important, and you need to consider what happens when people take a career break) but if you don’t get the women through the door you can’t even start to address the problem. Hopefully this post will help a couple of employers to make their recruitment practices more appealing.

If you want to know more about this kind of stuff, check out Reena Jewell at – she’s based in Southampton and has done some surveys on what women undergrads want in terms of tech careers.

Many thanks are due to the women students who chatted to me about this topic, both virtually and IRL.

1 obviously, women can be biased too, and if your workplace is entirely male there’s something dishonest about having mixed assessment centres.

Academic conferences. Who pays?

My friend Cate Huston has written a post about tech conferences, and the thorny question of who pays for speakers to attend. You can find it here: Uncomfortable Conversations About Money. I was going to write a comment on it, but then realised I had a bit more to say, so here’s a post instead.

I’ve only spoken at a couple of “mainstream” tech conferences, and they’ve either been local (so travel wasn’t an issue) or they’ve paid my travel. Which is nice. It is also a very unusual experience for me — very very rarely do academic computing conferences pay your travel, fee, or accommodation. Even if you’re presenting on the main stage you’ll have to pay the registration fee, and that’s usually hundreds of pounds/dollars/euros/whatevers. That’s not the only contrast though – here are the key differences as I see them:

Industry computing conferencesAcademic computing conferences
Speakers are invited, or submit abstractsSpeakers submit full papers (usually 4-15 pages). Conferences which are worth getting into (more on this later) will go to peer review
Often speakers are invited on their ability to give a good talkThe ability to give a good talk is irrelevant: whether you get in or not depends on the quality of your paper (and the robustness of the peer review process, of course)
There are lots of freebies: coffee, toys, t-shirts, etc.Most of the time, you’ll be lucky to get a usb stick and an unfashionable t-shirt (mens cut only)

What options are there for paying?

  1. Uni pays: Some unis have a central travel fund which can provide a contribution.
  2. Department pays: Some departments have a travel fund
  3. A grant pays: If you have been awarded a grant to do the work, you’ll have put some conference money in the grant proposal.
  4. You get an external travel grant: my professional body The British Machine Vision Association has travel bursaries for PhD students. Other societies might have the same.
  5. You pay with “slush money”: in a lot of unis, researchers will have their own personal research accounts, where little bits of money go. Grant overheads, consultancy money, prizes. In mine, I’ve had a teaching award (£1.2k), and some consultancy money (£1k) for schools outreach work that the project was going to pay to me personally, but which I put in the uni account just so I’d have some money for work-related travel and equipment. These funds can be used for any research-related expenditure; mine mostly goes on conference travel, camera kit (for computer vision work), and robots for schools outreach projects.
  6. Your PhD supervisor pays with their slush money: if you’re a student (and the department won’t pay), you can ask your supervisor. If you’re a supervisor, better build up some slush.
  7. You pay yourself: or partly pay, if you can only raise a bit from the department
  8. You put someone else on the paper: someone who’s likely to travel and can present the work, and who hopefully is related to the work. A few conferences will let non-named authors present which is another way of getting your work out there, if you can’t get out there yourself.
  9. You don’t go: this is a real pain in the arse, particularly if you’ve done the work, written a 12 page paper, got accepted, then find you have to withdraw due to lack of funds. It’s such a pain in the arse that I suspect most people don’t submit to conferences unless they’ve got a reasonable expectation of being able to afford to go.

The sources of funding have criteria attached, and I have seen all of the following (although not applied to the same funding stream, that would be silly).

  • Available to people at a particular career stage, e.g. early career researchers or PhD students
  • A limit on the number of applications per year: one conference a year; one national conference a year; one international conference a year
  • Geographical limits e.g. “National or European conferences only”
  • Conference quality related limits: either a named list of “ranking” conferences, or only conferences with acceptance rates below X% (x=33, in one place I worked)

I’ve only paid for my own conferences out of my salary once or twice, and those have been times when I have partial funding, or we’ve gotten extended versions of student project work published and I really want to support the student in going. There was a particularly memorable “getting to ITHET2003 in Morocco the cheap way” journey involving a cheap flight to Malaga, then coaches, ferries, trains and taxis, which meant that the travel costs were minimal and splitting the funding enabled both me and my project student to go. I think this cost me personally about 400 quid, but it was 400 quid well spent in my view.

Is there an equalities spin on this?

As ever there’s the question of equalities. The usual tech conference questions apply just as well to academic computing conferences. Speaker gender balance is harder to address, as you can’t just “invite more women”. Childcare is not often provided. In computer vision, at least, there’s a very real chance of being the only woman in the room (which is odd). But on the plus side, in computer vision, a lot of our peer review processes are double blind anonymous (where the reviewers don’t know who you are, and you don’t know who the reviewer is) which takes gender out of the equation during the decision process.

When we come to funding in particular there are two equalities issues I can think of.

Anything that is restricted to early career needs to have a well thought through definition of what “early career” means, so that the criteria do not disadvantage those who have taken career breaks.

A lot of the arrangements are informal and “can I have funding” boils down to asking a guy if you can go. One of the things Cate’s article touches upon is that transparency can be good for equality. If you have a policy, don’t make people ask to see it – make it clear. If you don’t have a policy, or you have one but it’s not well-known, you’re relying on people finding it out through informal chat, or asking for help. And in that case, you’re biasing the system against the reticent and the out-groups.

To Kill A Machine

On Friday I went to Cardiff to see a play. It’s a long way to go for a play, but this one’s special. It’s written by my friend Catrin, who’s a law lecturer here in Aberystwyth, and it concerns Alan Turing. She wrote it during the Alan Turing centenary year (2012), and the play has grown and developed since. Some of the actors read a scene at the BCS Mid Wales AGM in 2012, and I thought it was captivating. Since then, my interaction with the play has been accidentally at-a-distance. I wrote a piece on AI for the program, I supported the kickstarter, I spoke to colleagues and friends who loved it, I met the director and producer, I wrote letters of support, I tweeted about it. I had tickets once, but then I had the flu. It played in Aber, but I was in London. It played in London, but I was in Scotland.

So it was quite a relief to actually finally see it. It was even more of a relief to find the play was exactly as brilliant as I’d been told.

This play is not a sanitised biopic. This has not been edited for the Hollywood audience.

It’s an uncompromising story about a brilliant man, who refused to compromise in his work or in his private life. The actors are all great, but Gwydion Rhys (who plays Turing) is particularly captivating; he speaks as I imagine Turing would have done: pausing, thoughtful, awkward. The central device of the play is the game Imitation; this is also the core of Turing’s 1950 paper “On Computing Machinery and Intelligence”. In Turing’s article he debates whether it possible to tell, by asking questions, if you are talking to a man or a woman, or a human or a computer, and uses this debate to discuss the nature of artificial intelligence. The play uses the question and answer “game show” format to chilling effect.

The play goes to Edinburgh next week; it’s a one-act, fast paced, challenging piece of theatre. If you’re in Edinburgh, during the festival, I cannot recommend this enough. It’s on 7-31 August (except tues) at The Zoo, and here’s a link to buy tickets.

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 ( 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:-)

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!.