Step outside, please.

Until recently, I’ve felt uneasy about “industry”. There was a lot of comment from “industry” about our curriculum. A curriculum I’d developed in my own school for a long time, and a curriculum I truly believe in. I am friends with, and have worked with a number of people from computing industries. They’ve made some cracking comments to me over the years like “of course, what you teach is 20 years out of date”. I’m not sure what they are basing this on, none of them have read my SoWs, or seen an IT lesson, and in some cases haven’t spoken to any teenagers since they were teenagers themselves. I am learning that these opinions are not entirely representative!

Over the last couple of years, my opinion has begun to change. I’ve been actively seeking links with industry for kids in my department, and I’ve been blown away by the generosity, and the eagerness to get involved with promoting Computing to school students.

IBM have been particularly generous with their time and expertise. They have mentored our girls through IBM MentorPlace, and have come into our school for two after school Java courses which lasted several weeks. Both times they invited us back to IBM for tours and for challenges. They have provided experts when we requested specific talks, most memorably “Routes into Computing” to my GCSE class. They are local now to most areas, and many of their centres have contacts for school liaison. I am reliably informed that owing to the interest generated by the changes to the curriculum, they are offering Python programming courses.

Several kids I teach chose Computing work experience. Two particularly successful examples stand out. One went to IBM, where he had a splendid week coding, RFID tagging, and learning about data farms. When I spoke to him on day two he told me “MISS! You know all that stuff you told me in Computing? Well it’s actually real!” It concerns me that there might be others who think that I am lying…….. I think the value of a real world context can be underestimated. I find I forget that whilst what I teach is obvious to me, it’s news to my students. The second student spent his week creating a two Rasberry Pi sorting machine which he coded with Python. He blogged his whole project. The week gave him the time to do a protracted project without distraction, which in schools we don’t always have the luxury of time for. His mentor is keen to work further on Raspberry Pi projects with our digital leaders.

I’ve enjoyed making these links, and seeing my students benefit from them, and I’ve enjoyed having the chance to show workers from CS industries what we can do in schools, and what our students are capable of. I’d say whilst we are building our new CS curricula, working with industry is a must.

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Jobs for the girls?

I have had a very exciting week. Out of 50 students who have opted for GCSE Computing, 6 of them are girls. This does not sound like very many, but this is 6 more than last year.

I started something of a personal quest the year that I began teaching to attract more women into Computing classes. I went to university to study for a degree in Computational Linguistics after studying language A-Levels. I love languages, but IT in my all girls convent school was limited. It was a strange feeling to walk into a room of 50 men at one of my university interviews, but it wasn’t going to make me walk away, and not for one second did I think that the reason was that it was a course for boys.

My GCSE Computing lessons are one of the highlights of my week. Computing is a school subject like no other, and its students have a unique way of thinking (and a unique sense of humour, but that’s another blog for another time!). It is a strange feeling, after nearly 10 years teaching in mixed comprehensive schools to stand in a classroom with 25 boys.

There are a couple of things I have tried this year that I believe have made a difference. The first a small field trip to our local sixth form college. 12 girls and I spent the afternoon with two excellent Computing A-Level teachers. The first thing that struck me was that when I began to invite the girls, was that they asked me what Computing was. They weren’t just “not interested”, Computing hadn’t entered into their experience. We went spent the afternoon at the college learning VB programming, the finite state machine, and a magic trick. All of the girls said afterwards that Computing was an option to which they would give serious consideration.

We have been working with IBM this year on the MentorPlace scheme. It’s for Year 10 girls, which is too late to attract girls to the Computing GCSE option, but all the girls involved have said that they are seriously considering A-Level. Each student has had an industry mentor to email (through monitor-able software), we have visited for activity days, and several of the girls did work experience with their mentors, which included web design and evaluation, RFID tagging and java programming.

I think giving girls an experience outside of school to show them Computing and its real life applications is invaluable in driving up numbers. I think that if you try to explain it to people who are perhaps not gamers, or who have had no urge to dismantle their PC, it can be very difficult for them to conceptualise.

As an aside, I realise that “Pink it and shrink it” is now fairly universally frowned upon in Computing circles. HOWEVER, I became involved with the pilot of CC4G at the beginning of my career and carried it forward to my current school, where it ran as a Saturday morning club for Year 6 girls from the feeder schools. There was certainly something to be said for fostering the interest in girls at a younger age. They bought mothers and grandmothers with them, and a CC4G dad, who learnt alongside them. Most of these girls went on to choose IT options, including the CISCO IT practitioners course, which was certainly “proper computing”.

There is a big movement to encourage more girls to consider Computing careers and options, but ultimately, we as teachers probably have the biggest influence of all, which is quite a responsibility.

It has to start somewhere.

I am a Curriculum Leader of a large and busy ICT department. I am supported by a hardworking and adventurous staff. We have a whole cohort entry for KS4 ICT, and more than half of our Year 9s have opted this year for another IT or Computing option. Our kids are far from bored, and speaking for myself, I haven’t been bored for years!

I have a Computer Science degree, but the changes to our curriculum have not been without challenge to me. It’s been a roller coaster. First we were all told that we were “teaching old fashioned content”, that “all kids are digital natives”, “IT is taught to bored kids by bored teachers”. Then we were all told we’d be provided with a brand spanking new curriculum. The the whole nation was told that we weren’t skilled enough to teach it. We would need a new crop of “Computer Science graduates”. They’d be the very best. They’d get a £20 000 bursary. None of this sat well with me, or many other IT teachers. The overwhelming majority of IT teachers have at least some CS skills already, and teachers in general are an adaptable bunch. Most of us have had the experience of another subject on our timetables that is not our specialism, and in my experience when that happens we do our very best to get that right. Britain’s Computer Science teachers already exist, and they are already working hard, through CAS for example, to find each other. As for our children being digital natives, perhaps they are in some respects. Does this mean they instantly know how to use a database? Does this mean they already know all the principles of good design? Of course not. Many of them have also been surrounded by the English language since birth. This does not mean that they don’t need to be taught how to read and write. IT will need to live on.

Over the last couple of years, I have started to put together a Computer Science curriculum that might sit happily with Key Stage Three and Four students, and their teachers. I have tried to balance the new CS skills with all the great things about IT. I have done all the standard things. I have joined CAS, I have started a GCSE in Computing at my school, I bought the Rasberry Pi and Lego Mindstorms and together with our Digital Leaders have had a go. It’s been fun so far, and it’s been interesting, but I certainly don’t think I’m there yet. I hope to use this blog (which is my first!) to share some of the ideas, and hopefully swap some ideas, and maybe convince a few more nervous ICT departments that it is not so hard to do.

My first few entries after this one will be “Jobs for the girls”, “links with industry”, “programming kick starter”, and some practical ways of delivering CS theory content.