This post is a follow-up to one I wrote just over a year ago about my experience running a computing club at a local primary school before the Covid pandemic, and then resuming my STEM Ambassador activities last summer by running a retro games arcade at the school summer fair (https://blog.67bricks.com/?p=541). I’ve since resumed my computing club and thought it would be worthwhile to give a proper account of my experiences.I started the club in April 2018, full of enthusiasm but with little knowledge of appropriate techniques for imparting knowledge to 8-year-olds. I was armed with five robots: two “Dash” robots and one “Cue” robot from Wonder Workshop (https://uk.makewonder.com) and two Lego Boost robots (https://www.lego.com/en-gb/product/boost-creative-toolbox-17101), a few ageing iPads and some Kindle Fires that I’d got cheap from a Black Friday deal. I also had a working knowledge of Scratch (https://scratch.mit.edu/) and a bunch of ideas.
I spent an inordinate amount of time preparing a 10-week course for the first bunch of students that were unleashed upon me. I prepared a full set of worksheets to cover concepts like algorithms, loops, functions and events – including an activity using the robots and an equivalent activity using Scratch. Here’s an example of an activity to learn loops by getting the Dash robot to dance:
I turned up to my first session clutching my worksheets, with a suitcase full of robots and tablets, and half a plan for how to teach something useful to a group of 8-11 year-olds. I learned a number of important things in that first session:
- Kids don’t like worksheets. At best they will be ignored. At worst they will be crumpled up and trodden underfoot. It doesn’t matter how beautiful or colourful they are, how carefully crafted – literally nobody is interested in them. They will gather dust until you admit defeat and shove them in the recycling bin.
- Any IT equipment the school has will either not work, or will be locked down to the extent that I won’t be able to use it. If the school has anyone with IT expertise they’ll likely be a contractor who only turns up at the school for a few hours on a Tuesday morning, and their only interest in my club will be in making sure that I don’t break any of their kit. The “smart screens” adorning the walls of the classrooms are pretty ornaments which are not to be used by the likes of me. I got round this by bringing in my own projector and pointing it at a convenient wall. The school might have iPads but nobody knows how to install any apps on them. School laptops are always out of battery power and access to them is via some sort of free-for-all.
- Kids are powered by snacks. Lots and lots of them. You have no power to stop them munching biscuits throughout your session, despite protestations that greasy fingers and school laptops are not a good combination.
- Kids also have teeny tiny bladders (or at least claim to have) and so perpetually want to duck into and out of the session to visit the facilities. Generally, preventing them from going in packs of four at a time is a good idea.
- Robots are very popular – but robots made from Lego are very fragile and generally do not survive being driven off a desk. It’s also tenuous as to whether they will survive the journey to school stuffed into a soft suitcase.
- Children do not like to share. Five robots between 12 children often resulted in tussles and gentle reminders that there was time for everyone to have a turn.
- Some kids are better than me, and will storm ahead, completing all the exercises and then begin pestering me for more. Some just want to draw pictures in Scratch and ignore whatever activity I have planned. There are those who don’t get it at all, even if you sit beside them and write all their code. Others just want to mess about and play with the robots. All of these are fine. An after school club should not be “just more school” and it’s OK as long as everyone is having fun.
The club progressed nicely for two years, with some just trying it out for a term and others returning again and again. I gradually adapted the sessions to be a bit less planned. What worked well was me working through a challenge on my screen step-by-step with the students following along. If some of them raced ahead I would encourage them to add their own ideas to their program. If others lagged behind I would stop to help them, or pair them up with someone else who had already progressed to that point.
We would write simple games like Space Invaders or football. We would simulate simple physical systems like diffusion, liquid flow or bouncing balls. Or we would get the robots to draw pictures, make music, or dance.
Some of the highlights were:
Following a line on the floor:
Simulating a traffic crossing with three robots:
Tidying up Lego pieces:
Various types of digital (and not-so-digital) art:
Battling Wizards: https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/738294798/
Liquid flow: https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/239536433/
When the COVID pandemic hit in March 2020 I had to shut the club down and I was only able to resume it again in September 2022. I wrote in my previous blog post about the effects of the pandemic on education, but the lack of access to clubs and social activities is probably one of the less obvious impacts on a child’s wellbeing.
I was keen for my club to remain accessible to everyone and for activities to become more open-ended rather than just following my instructions step-by-step. Some approaches I took were:
- Giving guidance on some of the techniques required to write a game (e.g. getting a Scratch sprite to move, jump, bounce or fire projectiles) and then supervising while the children designed their own games.
- Writing a “story” by creating a sequence of animated backdrops through which sprites moved through (it’s amazing how many of these turned into horror tales involving zombies and vampires)
- Designing a quiz with multiple choice questions
- Exploring some of the excellent courses offered by Code.org at https://studio.code.org/courses
- Using the Turing Tumble to build a mechanical computer and learn exactly how logic gates work: https://upperstory.com/turingtumble/
- Using Nintendo Labo to program cars, fishing rods and more: https://www.nintendo.co.uk/Nintendo-Labo/Nintendo-Labo-1328637.html
The broad aim of the STEM Ambassador program is to provide young people with a link from STEM subjects to the real world of work, so as to inspire the next generation in STEM. I hope that in a small way my club has helped to do this.