Learning Programming

A collaboration between Sussex Uni and 3 Brighton Schools

The following is from a press release issued at the end of the project. See here too.

University of Sussex students are helping the next generation get to grips with vital computer programming skills in the classroom.

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 Master’s students at Sussex, came about as a result of academic Dr Judith Good’s involvement with Digital Education Brighton, an organisation which aims to promote digital technology 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 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 (i.e. writing the computer code) and look instead at software design, particularly at how to design software with users in mind.

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.”

It is hoped that the teaching packages will eventually be made available to more schools.