SIGCSE, Birds of a Feather (BOF) Session “CS Unplugged”

Poor Tim Bell. He must think I’m stalking him. I attended the BOF session for CS Unplugged, which quickly turned into the BOF on ‘Energising your Outreach to Schools” (my words). Once again Lynn Lambert and Tim shared their experiences with CS Unplugged to help us frame what was wrong with our outreach (or the problems that we had) in order to try and fix them.

The main issues were:

  1. How do we get into the curriculum?
  2. Bad/old equipment.
  3. Creating a meaningful activity in a very short time.
  4. Persistence – how we do we stay in their minds or their environment?
  5. Priming – how we prepare them for our visit?
  6. Time – how do we fit it all in and, more importantly, how does the teacher?
CS Unplugged is a good way to address quite a few of these problems – it provides a curricular framework (1), doesn’t need equipment (2), is meaningful in a short time (3) and doesn’t take much time to carry out (6). But what about persistence and priming? The group discussed this for a while but the main message was “Train the trainer” – we need to keep investing time in teacher training to make these activities a go-to for any part of the day and a desirable activity for busy and over-worked teaching staff.
Along the way, we had a fascinating discussion of what it is that we actually do – how do we tell kids what it is that we do? As one participant says “A doctor walks in and says ‘I save lives’. We walk in and say ‘We process data.'” That’s a hard comparison but it’s a fair one.
We liked the idea that “We solve other people’s problems” and we also discussed the notion of regionalising what it is that we did, so picking out a CS focus for a given area, where the kids would see people doing it every day, or see people appreciating it every day.
Some other general notes from the session:
  • Pick the right time to come in and interact with students, when teachers are happy to have you. Teachers don’t get a reward for dealing with students at elementary level.
  • CS BIts and Bytes is a good newsletter
  • cs4fn got another mention as a good website
  • One amusing quote from a parent, after finding out what we did, was “I had no idea that CS had any application.” To our credit, nobody cried when this was told to the group.
  • Involve people in discussing useful, relevant problems and how CS is used to help: suggestions included global warming and genomic sequencing.

Overall, another fun discussion with a lot of actively concerned people trying to make things better. Please leap in for corrections if I missed something important or got something wrong. I’m also happy to edit to add credits if required. 🙂