For many parents and teachers, computer programming can initially seem intimidating. This is not the case, however, for the pupils who take part in a very successful weekly programming club at Flora Stevenson Primary School. At this club, pupils are currently working on increasingly complex projects such as building calculators and stopwatches.
Steven Clarke, a parent who works in the ICT sector, runs the club. This is becoming increasingly common in the city where parents with experience working with ICT volunteer in schools, helping to broaden the experiences of the pupils and teach them complex new skills. Meeting with these parents also encourages children to learn more about working in the ICT sector after leaving school, meeting many of the Entitlements and Expectations of the Career Education Standard included in the Curriculum for Excellence. (For more information on this please click here.)
Here, Steven describes the activities that his junior programmers currently take part in:
“At the programming club we have up to 10 children who attend and who each work on different programming challenges that I set them, all using Scratch on a Raspberry Pi. The challenges I set them depend on how experienced they are. My intent is to enable them to use most of the constructs in Scratch and to gain an appreciation of computational thinking.
If they have never seen Scratch before, I give them a short introduction to how it works, then ask them to write a program that moves a sprite across the screen. I then get them to think about different ways that they could have written the same program. After that, I give them more challenges that introduce more concepts such as loops, conditionals, variables etc (e.g., a guess the number game).
I also introduce them to the idea of how to write effective code. I have a simple challenge where they have to make six sprites dance when one of them is clicked. Then I ask them to change the program so that the sprite that is clicked doesn’t dance but the rest of them do. This often leads them down a path of writing lots of convoluted code which really gets them thinking about how to write that code better. This introduces the concept of messaging and reinforces the idea of state.
After this I keep giving them more challenges. I ask them to build a calculator for example, which gets them thinking about lists and parsing data structures. They work on
a stopwatch getting them thinking about design patterns like model view controller. I also get them to start thinking like an engineer by giving them incomplete specs of what I’d like them to do and then encourage them to keep asking me questions about what I mean as they work on the program.
I don’t do any lectures. I sit with individual children as they need help and work through a problem with them. So pretty much each child works at their own pace.
We meet each Friday morning for an hour. I have to admit, I don’t do a lot of preparation for this now as we’ve been running it for a couple of years with lots of different children so I’ve seen quite a few progress through the different challenges above. The club has kind of evolved to how it is now. Watching how the children learn helped me figure out what would be a good challenge for them. The biggest challenge for me is thinking of more challenges that will keep pushing them.
The children seem to enjoy it. They keep coming back and asking me for more challenges.”
Here are a few words from the children involved:
Tom, P7: “I like the way the challenge stays in your mind and you become determined to do it. Programming is fun and you don’t always realise you are learning new coding. I used Scratch to program an animation showing the Battle of Killiecrankie. It was difficult but really good fun. You do lots of problem solving which I think helps in other things. I really like that programming could be a job.”
Chapman, P5: “I really enjoy the end result, knowing that you have made something and that people do this as a job and you can too. It really helps to have an expert with us and Mr Clarke has really helped us to get better. Coding is fun but can be really difficult too.”
To actively encourage more female pupils to take part in STEM activities, Flora Stevenson’s will be taking 40 girls to RBS in March for a day of Coding as well as starting up a similar club for girls after the February break, run by a mother who works in programming.
If you’d like to start something similar at your school but have no parent volunteers with appropriate experience, a popular alternative is Code Club, a UK-wide network of free, volunteer-led after-school coding clubs for children aged 9-11. Several Code Clubs have already been set up in Edinburgh schools. For more information please see www.codeclub.org.uk.