Computer club Part 1

I was a kid in the 80’s, the short-lived golden era of Home Computers. I had a Sinclair ZX81, followed by a ZX Spectrum 48K (and another one when that one broke). At the same time I also had access to a very nice Commodore CBM 8032 and a BBC Model B at junior school. Later at home we got an Acorn Archimedes A440, later replaced with an Acorn RISC PC. At my senior school at the time, we had BBC’s, later replaced with a whole suite of Archimedes Machines.

Most these computers shared a common feature – when you booted them they presented you with a BASIC prompt. You were expected to enter code. Most children at the time could write a two line program (you know, the one that starts with 10 PRINT and fills the screen of the TRS80 in Tandy with rude words), and the computer rooms were usually fairly busy with people writing code. Even the Archimedes, recognisable to a present day user as a “proper” computer, had the superb BBC BASIC V right under the skin.

I spent a lot of my childhood tapping out code, and ended up working as software developer. Would I have done the same without these funny little computers? Who knows! We had no formal computer teaching of any kind at school. If you were lucky, there was an enthusiast teacher who might be able to answer a question. No Google either of course!

Unless you live under a rock (or outside the UK) you’ll have noticed the sudden rush of media coverage on the topic of ICT and IT teaching in schools. To me it felt like it all started in the media when Eric Schmidt criticised the British education system. I’ve been moaning about this to anyone that will listen for a several of years now, but actually did nothing more than that. Thank god some people have been more organised: the Raspberry Pi foundation (including the legendary David Braben), the Next Gen Skills group, Ian Livingstone (of Fighting Fantasy fame) and Alex Hope of Double Negative who co-authored the Next Gen report, the Royal Society’s “Shut Down or Restart?” report, the Computing at Schools working group (who published a rather good free suggested computing curriculum (PDF), the Goto FoundationRory-Cellan Jones (the BBC technology correspondent), the Guardian’s Digital Literacy Campaign, and probably other I’ve missed. The tireless efforts of these campaigners got the media covering the issue, and that meant the government had to respond, which they duly did.

There’s a lot more work to do, but it’s wonderful to see the energy and enthusiasm erupting here. I also think it’s wise to be cautious about the government’s response, and to recognise the good work that’s already being done in schools.

I mention all this as background, because I currently live in a school. It’s a boarding school, and my wife is a teacher here. In addition, we are both house parents which means we look after a bunch of boarders. I also have a day job in software.  For a long time, I’ve wanted to run some kind of computer club or activity, to find the potential geeks and programmers here and encourage them. This term, I’ve committed to doing it. The first one is today!
I’ve already hit a bunch of problems:
  • The ICT suite has all XP machines, very locked down, and it’s hard to install any software on them.
  • They only have IE installed, which rules out a lot of good web-based material.
  • The network uses a problematic (in the words of the IT Administrator) firewall/filter appliance which makes it hard to access sites, since every domain they hit has to be whitelisted.
Even at this late stage, I’m trying to figure out what we should be doing and how we should organise the sessions. They will be once a week, about 45 minutes long. I hope I’ll have pretty much the same people each week, from years 6-8.
The group will be self-selecting, in that the children choose these activities. This means I’ll be working with kids who are either good with computers, or who want to be, or think they might be (or want to be with their friends who are). I’ve no idea how many I’ll get, or how many will stick with it.
I intend to keep writing about this as I go along, but a few issues I can see on the horizon are:-
  • How to set up a platform I can really work with on the machines, without causing problems for the IT staff.
  • What to cover. I think I will have to play this by ear, depending on how many turn up, what their skills are and what the are interested in.
  • How to give the kids a way to carry on the activity between weekly sessions.
  • How inclusive it should be.

This last point is one that bothers me most, going in to it. Programming is quite hard, and requires patience and dedication. Some of them will probably have big, unrealistic expectations about what they can achieve, and I need to adjust those gently without putting them off.

When I was a kid, I got a buzz out of figuring a puzzle out, cracking something new, making a piece of code work no matter how simple.  That buzz is the payoff that you need to keep you there through all the frustration and effort you have to put in.  If you don’t get that, I don’t think you’ll go on to be a developer.

So, I hope I’ll get a few in the group who are the real deal; potential software developers. What about the rest? Do I try to put them off? Keep them entertained and hope a few things will stick? Because this is a club, not a lesson, I can play by different rules. While I believe some of this should be in the curriculum, and that all kids should get a grounding in it, this is an enthusiast group.

The ones who are the few who will stick with it will probably be happy writing Python code to print the Fibonacci sequence. The ones that aren’t will want whizz bang eye-candy to keep their interest going.

So how to balance it? Can we keep everyone happy?

Any advice welcomed!


6 Responses to “Computer club Part 1”

  1. 1 John Stout 20/01/2012 at 20:30

    It’s a hobby horse of mine, but please have a look, if you haven’t done already, at BYOB (byob. It’s based on Scratch, but with just a few extra concepts, primarily the ability to add your own blocks to the drag and drop ones of Scratch. These blocks can be simple  ‘to draw a square’ of a given size ones, brand new control structures, domain specific extensions, e.g., for a microbe infection simulation we built a ‘with [] chance in []’ do this, all the way to map functions which apply a given block to a list and return the result.

    It can be used at every level from primary to university (see The Beauty and Joy of Computing course on the BYOB site).

    You can install one master copy on a  public server and then run that copy on all the XP machines.

    If any of your students want to delve deeper they can look at the source code (Smalltalk) while it is running.

    If I can help at all please let me know.

  2. 3 John Stout 20/01/2012 at 20:39

    I had an 8032 as well. Happy memories. When I ran an emulator last year I typed in, almost without having to think about it, POKE 59468, 14 to swap from upper case to lower.

    • 4 John Carlyle-Clarke 20/01/2012 at 20:49

      I’m impressed! I remember almost nothing about the actual operation of that machine. I do remember that I did quite a lot with the programmable floppy drive at the time. I wrote something to display graphically the disk sector layout and even do some basic checks I think.

  3. 5 Ralph Corderoy 21/01/2012 at 12:30

    For something to do between sessions, given they’ve limited access to a computer and are only just beginning, how about getting them to run one-dimensional cellular automata? (Don’t call them that though, don’t want to aid their Googling; ‘pattern maker’ might be sufficiently generic assuming they don’t read your blog.)

    Providing the rule icon from in some form and a little bit of explanation on how to apply it they can fill in N rows for themselves. I wouldn’t show them typical output, let them discover the complexity of the patterns from a single starting pixel. Give each a different automata; pick interesting ones from the site; Pose questions that they may want to consider… Does it matter in what order the new row is filled out? How many different rules are possible? What if you start with a line having more than one dot? With no dots? How might a computer program go about producing the next row? Were there any shortcuts they realised they could take once they’d done a few rows?

  4. 6 Phil (twitter: space_me_out) 12/09/2012 at 08:53

    I was thinking of setting up a compter club @ Fontmell school although I’ve not got very far with it, other than thinking about it.

    My thoughts were to use scratch, because it gets the princables over without typing, and the syntax errors that can introduced. I feel easy of use is important, typing could be a turnoff, especially at age 7+. (if they get want more I’ll introduce them to VI)It graphical and all the tools are already there. And it’s a easy deploy. And it’s fun!

    I was thinking of flash drive for saving their work.

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