Case study: Engaging pupils in programming

Written by: Chris Aitken | Published:
App-lied learning: Students John and Konrad achieved success at the Apps for Good Awards with their App One Click Politics (Photo: Apps for Good/CDI)

Computing science teacher Chris Aitken uses various approaches to engage his students in technology, including the Apps for Good programme. He offers his advice on ways in which schools can revitalise their programming curriculum

Learning coding for coding's sake, or working solely with text-based languages on screen, doesn't often inspire pupils' curiosity and interest.

Learning to code is a fundamentally different way of thinking; looking at algorithms and trying to understand what they do and how they work can be very challenging.

The National 5 computing science course, which has been running for three years now, focuses on the reading, understanding and writing of code, as well as computational thinking and problem-solving.

When students get their heads around the principles, they really engage with the subject, and they enjoy doing the coursework at the end of the year which consolidates their skills in one project.

Getting that initial interest going is crucial though, as when faced with understanding how computational constructs work and putting them into practice, students can get frustrated and disenchanted by initial setbacks and failures. Finding a way of inspiring students and maintaining that motivation is the key to success.

At Wick High, we offer an S1 and S2 combined ICT and computing science course where we aim to get our students to engage with the principles of computing within a much broader and general context.

We teach this through a cross-curricular course which covers various other subject areas including literacy, numeracy and business. In S4 to S6 we offer National 3 to 5, Higher and Advanced Higher computing science.

I am very pleased to see the focus on computational thinking and problem-solving in the new courses and am impressed that universities are now engaging with schools to help us ensure that our students are prepared to study computing science at university level.

External support

The Apps for Good course has been a fantastic programme for getting students, who otherwise wouldn't have been interested in the subject, enthused about programming. We have seen a year-on-year increase in students wanting to participate, and this year, we have had our largest intake ever, with 80 students – around 80 per cent of the year group – dedicating four sessions a week to the course.

The successes of previous years' teams at the Apps for Good Awards, where the pupils present their apps to a panel of expert judges, have shown our students the benefits of the course and motivated them to work hard at their own projects. Three of our teams made the finals this year, which meant travelling more than 600 miles from Wick to the Barbican in London. It was a brilliant experience for all of them, and it shows that it doesn't matter where you are, you can still compete on a national level.

We have integrated the Apps for Good course as a driver to get students interested in solving a particular problem or issue. The students begin by identifying problems that they think could be solved by an app, before researching the economic and technical viability of their ideas and then designing and implementing their solution.

It offers a really interesting and relevant pathway into coding. They may not realise it at the time, but through the course, they are learning the fundamental aspects of computing that they can then apply to the National 5 course, such as implementing basic loops and working with variables in environments such as App Inventor and Scratch.

Next year, we will be using one of our weekly sessions to apply this practical knowledge to Python, using mobile robots to get hands-on experience and to see the tangible results of code. I like offering project-based work where students are given the opportunity for creativity and group work.

We also take part in projects like the Kodu Kup Scotland and Wearable Design competitions with support from Thomson Reuters, headed up by Bob Schukai, head of advanced product innovation. Bob has visited Wick High every year for the last three years which really motivates and engages our students, not only during his visits, but for a long time after.

Advice for programming

The best advice I can give to schools about computing is to make it relevant to students; if they can bring in the subjects they love or their extra-curricular interests, they will really care about what they are producing.

Two of our students this year, John and Konrad, are really passionate about politics and run a club once a week. Their app, One Click Politics, was designed to get more young people aged between 12 and 18 involved in politics by dispelling the myth that it is "too complicated", which they found was the most likely reason for disinterest.

They loved and believed in their idea, and spent a great deal of time perfecting their pitch, so even with the daunting task of presenting their idea to very important technology figures at the Apps for Good Awards, their confidence and desire to make a change really shone through.

The course also provides expert sessions, where people who work in the technology industry come in to discuss the students' ideas and support them in their projects.

The industry connection is really important; it is one thing to teach children how to code and how to design a project, but to show them how it can translate into a career path when they leave school is even more valuable.

Teachers can benefit from this too, especially those who have never taught computing – as well as the experts, there are plenty of people involved with Apps for Good who can help you get to grips with the curriculum and the industry ideas behind it.

Creating prototypes of the students' app ideas can also help in translating computing into real-life situations. Once our students have developed an idea, they create a wireframe mock-up using Balsamiq and then turn it into a semi-working prototype in App Inventor. They can then use the basic building blocks of programming to implement functions such as buttons and transitions.

The Apps for Good course fits well with the Curriculum for Excellence as it promotes various cross-curricular links, focusing not only on the design and coding, but also business and marketing skills, and group work and collaboration. It is a different method of delivering programming as a skill, but the course provides a well-rounded approach which is more likely to get children excited about not only using technology, but creating it themselves.

Because of Apps for Good and our connections with industry, our students have had access to many amazing opportunities alongside the curriculum such as summer work placements at Thomson Reuters, working with engineers at Denchi Power and even a two-week residential in London at the Outbox Incubator.

All of these opportunities ensure that our students are able to compete and succeed even in spite of our remote location.

  • Chris Aitken is the computing science teacher at Wick High School in the remote north east Highlands.

Further information

Apps for Good: www.appsforgood.org


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