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Students guide younger generation to new heights in computer skills classes

University of Sussex student working with ICT students at Brighton's Blatchington Mill School

University of Sussex students are helping the next generation get to grips with vital computer programming skills in the classroom by designing games that inspire them to learn.

The students worked with teachers and secondary school pupils to develop games and learning resources that would inspire them to learn basic programming skills.

The collaboration, involving three Brighton schools and third-year undergraduates and Masters students at Sussex, came about as a result of academic Dr Judith Good’s involvement with Digital Education Brighton, an organisation that promotes the use of digital technology in education through small projects.

The project was timely, as the computer science curriculum has been much in the news recently following government calls for an overhaul of computer science teaching and for teachers to place more emphasis on programming skills.

Programming skills are seen as key to the development of new technologies and companies such as Google, Sony and Electronic Arts have been campaigning for an improvement in the curriculum, as there is a shortage of programming knowledge.

Dr Good, who lectures in Informatics at the University of Sussex, and students on her Technology Enhanced Learning Environments course have been considering the challenges involved in teaching programming.

Dr Good says: “We know from research and experience that programming is difficult – those that ‘get it’ really fly, but many students do badly and tend to drop out of their computer science courses. So there is the added problem of how to teach a difficult subject. And then there is the added problem of motivation. Programming is not often seen as a very attractive topic of study, particularly by females.”

To address these issues, Dr Good’s students joined pupils at Dorothy Stringer and Blatchington Mill secondary schools, where computer programming is already taught, to find out what approaches teachers found useful in their classes, and which aspects of the subject motivated their pupils to perform better. They also partnered with the Self Managed Learning College in Brighton, where some students had expressed a desire to learn programming.

The students found that one of the biggest challenges for teachers was having to teach classes of widely varying abilities. Teachers asked for support to teach some of the basic concepts to struggling students.  Other teachers wanted to cover more than just programming (ie writing the computer code) and teach their pupils how professional software developers go about designing software that is both easy and enjoyable to use.

The students also talked to school pupils to find out what might inspire them to learn about computing. The students then developed a range of teaching software packages that met the needs of the teachers and motivated students to engage with programming.  

One such package, for example, allows pupils to design a game in which players are responsible for getting multiple aircraft to their destinations.  There are trade-offs to be made depending on factors such as the number of passengers, or the amount of fuel to complete a successful flight, all of which involves some basic programming.

Dr Good says: “It’s a win-win approach. My students are developing software and resources for existing languages and basic programming concepts that teachers can take away and use in class. And for the students it was a great learning experience as they got to work on a real-world, topical project.”

Darren Kelly, Curriculum Leader ICT & Business Studies, Blatchington Mill School, says: “From my perspective the collaboration has been very successful in bringing together undergraduate and postgraduate students with school students to design, develop and user test projects that have a real need and support the new IT Curriculum at Blatchington Mill.  The students involved here are excited by the introduction of new programming languages and having resources designed in conjunction with them.”

University of Sussex students Sebastian Long, Emma Foley and Maria Sotiriou are all studying for a degree in Human-Computer Interaction Design and were part of the project team.

Emma says: “Working with the local schools has been amazing, providing us with valuable experience outside the University and the chance to make a meaningful difference to education in our local area and beyond. We’re pleased that these local schools and the University have decided to seize the opportunity to re-think both what students should be learning in ICT, and how it should be taught.”

Sebastian says: “We’ve delivered a hands-on project, using a whole range of tools that show how to design programs that are easy to use, and fulfill the needs of the people using them. None of these key skills are covered by the existing curriculum, but we hope that they will play a big part in future. We’re all very proud to have been a part of this project, and we’re hoping to continue our involvement.”

It is hoped that the teaching packages will eventually be made available online  to more schools up and down the country.

 


Notes for Editors

Dr Judith Good is Reader in Informatics at the University of Sussex. Her research interests include educational simulations and games, constructivist learning environments, artificial intelligence and education, support tools and environments for novice programmers, external representations in reasoning and problem-solving.  

Digital Education Brighton was conceived by Phil Jones (Wired Sussex), Mick Landmann (Vivid Interactive) and Richard Vahrman (Locomatrix), all Brighton based companies.

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email: press@sussex.ac.uk

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By: Maggie Clune
Last updated: Monday, 2 April 2012

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