Joe Collins, Seconded Assistant Headteacher and Head of Computer Science at The Thomas Aveling School in Rochester, tells us about the role of small single-board computers in STEM education.
In your opinion, what engages students most with Computer Science at school?
I find that practical work especially engages students becuase they are able to get stuck in, receive feedback and achieve immediate results. For example, writing a short programme, such as your first ‘Hello World’ statement, and executing it with success for the first time empowers students and increases their independence.
How do you support feeder schools with their Computer Science provision?
I currently visit about half-a-dozen feeder schools in our area and collaborate with them to produce resources and offer training in coding. This tends to be a key area that primary school teachers shy away from, often due to alack of confidence in the subject area. In conversations I’ve had with primary school teachers, they say the biggest issue they face is that nobody has shown them how to confidently use software, such as Scratch for example. Therefore, the minute they come across a problem or issue that they cannot solve, they tend to avoid using the software altogether. In reality, with the correct training and guidance it is usually a simple fix.
Why do you think devices, such as Microbits, Raspberry-Pi and Arduino, are becoming increasingly popular in schools?
I think it is because it shows how coding can be applied in a real-life scenario. Every student, pretty much, has an electronic device they can access. For what many would consider an affordable price, students can use small single-board computers to create their own systems, such as a Smart TV Box or a games console or even their own security system.
Also, we are in different age now, a cyber age, and the way we think is different compared to the 80’s or 90's. Twenty-years-ago, considerably fewer people had a mobile phone and now (with the increase in variety, accessibility and availability of electronic devices) they are ingrained in our daily lives right across the population.
How do you propose schools cover the cost of using small single-board computers in lessons?
Cross-school collaboration of resources; working with a multi-academy trust to exchange resources and ideas is incredibly worthwhile. Many resources can be obtained for free, if you choose the right avenues. For example, when the BBC Microbit was launched, the BBC ran a programme where they gave every Year 7 student in the country a Microbit, provided that the school applied for them. Generally, the reason these IOT (Internet of Things) devices are so popular is that they are so affordable. For example, you can buy a Raspberry Pi Zero for as little as ten pounds. The product maybe small, but it is an effective computer system that can work on lots of small projects ranging from a security system to a door bell. These small single-board computers are very versatile for a range of practical projects or can just be used as a normal computer system.
I see it is an investment. You could start with five small single-board computers, such as Raspberry Pi, in a class of 30 and have children work in groups to produce their own local area network, whereby they can communicate with each other via their IOT device. Some newer small single-board computers have built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, plus Ethernet availability. You shouldn’t have to replace the products very often and students can have their own SD cards to store their programming onto.
What would you change about the current Computer Science curriculum, if anything?
I would make it much more practical-based and try to include more electronics. It would be great for students to see more application of coding in the real-world, as at the moment there is more emphasis on the theory of programming. In our extra-curricular clubs, we tend to focus on programming electronic devices to function and we build IOT devices, which aren’t necessarily part of the taught curriculum. I think we need to push STEM further in the curriculum and make Computer Science more holistic with other subjects, such as design and technology — we need to combine engineering with coding. Real-life solutions need to be integral to student learning more than ever, similar to the Finnish education system. I’ve worked with students to answer a brief to improve sustainability and reduce the cost of energy consumption and I have heard about projects where groups of young people have re-produced tech that usually costs thousands of pounds for just £60.
Any other comments about the use of IOT devices in lessons?
Let me tell you about the Wi-Fi doorbell project I worked on. Using a Raspberry-Pi Zero and a Smart Phone, I managed to programme my Wi-Fi so that it recognised any Smart Phone that had previously logged onto my Wi-Fi as the phone approached my front door (with Wi-Fi turned on). I programmed the Raspberry-Pi to send me a message/ping my Smart Phone alerting me to their presence, like a virtual door bell. This only took about 30 minutes — less than your average school lesson!
As well as teaching in a conventional school environment, Joe Collins also teaches in Cambridge Coding Academy summer schools and has previously advised an animation software company on their production of educational resources.
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