For the past several months, I’ve been working with my friend Stephen Garland on exploring initiatives around teaching children using software development principles and tools. Currently, we’re getting a lay-of-the-land by cultivating content as we develop opportunities and directions in which to move forward. Once we have a structure for organizing these materials, we’ll be sharing them here as well as possibly through other venues.
Today, in honor of Computer Science Week, and Hour of Code, Steve led a workshop at the Santore Library in Philadelphia for a group of about 16-18 kids, aimed at ages 5-8, and I helped where I could. Here is a link to an article that Tony Abraham of Technical.ly Philly wrote about it.All in all, I think it was pretty successful in starting to give the kids a sense of how computers process a sequence of specific instructions, and how coding/programming is about assembling a sequence of specific instructions to solve a problem. The session revolved around giving the Scratch Jr. cat specific movement instructions to reach a birthday cake sitting across the virtual room. Before getting onto the iPad to pursue this task, Steve introduced it as a physical activity in the library, with printouts of the cat, directional arrows, and the birthday cake. Once this walkthrough was complete, I think the kids were better able to appreciate the activity on the computer. On the computer, Steve stepped up the complexity a little by introducing an obstacle–a dragon–who would impede the cat’s direct path to the birthday cake. Here are some overall reflections on the session:
- I was pleasantly surprised how well-controlled the kids were on the activity, it clearly was interesting enough to hold their attention and encourage their participation. Certainly some kids were more animated and vocal than others, but no one was disruptive or seemingly lost.
- The corresponding physical activity–having the kids direct the cat, then themselves walk the path they had determined through the room–worked really well. It was a practical way to channel their energy and engage with the task later on the computer.
- The session was scheduled for 1 hour, but I think it could have worked better as a 30 minute workshop. I felt it became harder to keep sustained control and focus beyond 30 minutes. I wonder if it would have been more effective to run several 30 minutes workshops, maybe at two levels. One thought was whether it would be possible to conduct a preliminary activity to identify or assess readiness for different follow-up activities, so perhaps doing a short exercise with a larger group to identify smaller groups that could split off for activities tailored to their skill-level.
- The kids were arranged at 4 tables, in groups of 3-5. These were pretty good sizes, but there wasn’t much teamwork involved. Perhaps having the kids pair up, or having specific challenges to the teams would have encouraged better collaboration.
- While kids clearly want to explore on their own, we recognized that we didn’t want to give the kids their own devices, or even give devices to each group. We got a small glimpse of putting the device in kids’ hands at the end, which confirmed our hypothesis. Even being able to lock the device to the specific app, we felt that the kids would be focused on the device and getting the device from their team members, and not the task at hand. Encouraging discussion and engagement with peers was important, and that would be lost if it immediately became too much about what each individual was doing.
- Not only was there a structured sequence of events, but also a few possible additional directions, to provide for the trajectory not to be so deterministic. This was very important to let the experience be somewhat guided by the audience without losing control to the whims of the loudest children.
Again, I was very pleased with being able to participate in the opportunity today. We are working on developing other workshops aimed at various levels, so I hope to be able to share some insights as these occur.