Thinking Skills for Schools

This project involved the generation of off-line materials for teaching computing concepts to young children

The work was part of a larger project undertaken during the summer months of 2004. I headed a team of 5 students in the creation of worksheets for an ongoing research project being carried out within the department as part of a number of ongoing efforts to understand and tackle the dramatic drop in the number of students taking computing science at University.

The project proposal itself outlined seven main modules to cover, those being:

  1. Algorithms
  2. Programming
  3. Engineering Software
  4. Concurrency
  5. Systems Internals
  6. Distribution
  7. Long-lived systems

Modules 1 and 2 had a reasonable bulk of material behind them before the start of the summer. The goal of our summer work was to create worksheets for modules 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Each module consists of a number of worksheets, ideally not taking more than 1 hour to complete. The initial target age range for all worksheets was 10 - 12 years old, placing our target group at the end of primary education, and the start of secondary education.

While the idea of worksheets teaching computing concepts to children might seem strange initially, the decision was taken early on that this was an achievable goal. The requirement of paper based worksheets allows for a teacher to keep control of the class, whereas they might not be so comfortable controlling a class during a computer based exercise. Some of the simpler concepts are then immediately teachable to children, once the connection is made that some of the thought processes involved in Computing Science or Software Engineering are used in everyday situations, by all of us. For example, Algorithms and Programming is all about rule following and being precise with instructions, etc. Engineering Software focussed on capturing requirements (list building), testing, etc.

Many of the worksheets created were evaluated in local primary schools, with small groups of children. This allows us to guage clearly how close we are to the target age range in terms of language used, and also that we are not filling the sheets with too much jargon, or indeed making the sheets too difficult for too many pupils.

The spirit of this work lives on, and for current information please visit the CSinside website.

"Robbie" the robot, teaching tool

This was a two-person, seven-week project, during the Summer of 2003. The primary goal of the project was to redesign the user interface for a pre-existing Lego Mindstorms line-following robot, "Robbie". The work was completed with and trialled in primary schools with the help of Jim Liddell, who also created the background artwork shown in the screenshots below.

Aside from a general goal of making the interface as easily usable and intuitive as possible, part of the purpose of the redesign was to consider the possibility of Robbie (plus associated materials) becoming an entity which could be shipped out to schools and be used with little assistance from the University.

The robot

Robbie the robot is a teaching tool created as part of a third year undergraduate team project in the Computing department, and subsequently used by the University of Glasgow. The robot aims to teach simple programming concepts by allowing children (aged around 10-12 years) to program the Lego robot to move through a printed maze from a fixed start point to a fixed endpoint. The robot uses its own simple language (known simply as RPL, Robot Programming Language), which is capable of writing programs of the form:

if path left
then go left
else go forward

This RPL is parsed and translated into NQC ("Not Quite C") on a host machine. The resulting NQC is then compiled into a form acceptable for the Lego Mindstorms hardware, to be transmitted to Robbie to be tested.

The User Interface

The new interface operates on the basis of "challenges". Challenges are guided tutorials designed to build gradually the ideas required to allow the robot to complete the final challenge. The new UI consists of three "views".

Basic operation:

This is the page shown on loading a 'Challenge'. The challenges were arranged in such a way that a new concept was introduced by each, and maps got progressively harder. The maps actually shown in the pane on the right hand side of the window above are built up from a collection of images representing different squares, and a corresponding text file describing what tiles are placed where. The allowed for a handful of squares to be drawn, with the application rotating the squares as necessary.

This is the workspace pane for the corresponding challenge shown previously. In the easiest view, keywords like 'if' are interpreted and presented as something a little more readable; the keywords themselves are highlighted. The interface is drag & drop, so is mouse driven. Physically placing the solution into the gaps is much easier to grasp at the target age range than abitrary words as were in the old interface. Items could be dragged back out of the target spaces if a mistake is made. Only selections relevant to the currently loaded "Challenge" are displayed as options for the final solution in this view.

Directly after dropping a condition into an empty blue square, the green action icons relevant to the challenge are shown.

The final program, shown with error message detailing what has gone wrong with the download operation, and just what might be done to fix the problem.

The same program, displayed in the slightly more advanced "Icons & Words view". In this view, options shown are not restricted by the challenge loaded. The plaintext strings are replaced now by actual RPL code.

Program "views"

The same program, displayed in a more traditional "Words view". The advanced view is significantly like the original interface, in that the coding is done by hand. This time, however, keywords available to the programmer are displayed on the right hand side of the interface.

Switches between different views were handled as gracefully as possible, as were compiler errors and hardware errors. Audible and visual feedback was provided to the user where and when appropriate (an icon would make a noise when placed in an appropriate empty container, a different noise if it was pulled out of the container, and a substantially different noise if it were placed somewhere disallowed (somewhere outwith the centre text area, or into a container that was already full).