Friday, 28 November 2014

Choosing a Language for KS3

1. Have you picked a language that your department has some existing knowledge and expertise in or can you get help and training

If it is a language that your team already know, then that gives you a big advantage or if that is not possible choose a language that you are able to get good quality support and resources for.  Don't be afraid to reach out to your local Computing At Schools group for help or even to local industry and parents. They may not be willing to teach students, but they might help the teachers. 

2. What are the teaching resources available for this language?

A good idea to check and the various book that are available for the language

3. Is the graphical and text language capable of allowing the students to model algorithmic solutions, teach concepts and principles you need to cover?

Visual Language

Scratch is a good choice, but also consider Kodu if you are in a Windows environment. If you want it to be possible to edit on an iPad Snap is a good cross platform alternative. Touchdevelop also looks interesting and resources are in development. For lower ability users the Hopscotch is becoming quite a fully featured package. Gamefroot and Blockly also provide possibilities.

Text-based language

The main choices for text based options are SmallBasic and its bigger cousin Visual Basic for Windows. (Or another version of Basic)  Python is also popular and is good if you are planning to use the RaspberryPi. A language from MIT is Processing and it's got a lot of libraries and helpful resources. If you are in an Apple school, consider using Swift. You may also be able to use Javascript for a part of the curriculum. 

4. Can pupils easily access the language at home and around school?

Think about access from home, cross platform languages are likely to be more accessible and web access is even better.

5. Will you be able to install the language on your network?

You will need the cooperation of your network managers to install most languages and there could be security risks to the network if improperly handled. So you can understand that there may be reservations. If not possible Web-based languages or Raspberry Pis provide possible workarounds.

6. What will you be teaching in Key Stage 4 and 5, is there progression?

It makes sense to teach a language that will develop into a useful language beyond Key Stage 3. Check your exam boards carefully to see which languages are suited and even where they say they accept a variety of languages, remember that the functionality of the language can make tasks easier or more difficult.

7. What have they learnt in Key Stage 2? 

Certainly makes sense to use the visual language that is being taught in primary.  (Or at least they are preparing to teach.)

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Kano Gamifies the Raspberry Pi experience

I had mixed feelings about installing Kano on a Raspberry Pi. I'd read mixed reviews and wasn't sure how well it would work.  However let me cast away those initial misgivings.  Kano is awesome! Kano is built largely upon the excellent Open Source software that has gone before it, but what it does is to Gamify the whole experience.

When you start Kano it plays a game in DOS reminiscent of the Matrix.  It's a great way to get children in and then when you press StartX it all comes to life.  Naturally it doesn't matter what you put on a menu, when a 10 year old sees Minecraft, that's what they are going for!  What is especially nice about it, is that it presents Minecraft with a Scratch like interface and so children can make their own sculptures and in-game commands via the interface.

For parents who are not technical, this is probably as simple as a Raspberry Pi gets. The gamified experience takes you through the steps and it is not long before children are coding!   As a teacher, this provides the introductory point that 8 to 12 year olds need to get started and get interested in the Pi.   A fantastic job all-round and what is especially nice is that for existing Raspberry Pi users, the whole kit is free.

I have a few reservations as a teacher, I feel the choice of videos is a little inappropriate. Yes, we want to encourage children to get inside PCs but a monkey destroying a Macbook isn't the best way to go about it and something I know a lot of teachers will strongly object to, we're not here to replace Tablets and Computers, but to provide another tool.  I hope that the kit will include a WIFI module, because without it the inability to complete levels feels unfair. These are minor points that I hope will be taken on-board before final production.

I would stress this is not a kit for hobbyists, who have already found a 1,000 ways to use the Pi, GCSE or A-level students who've already cracked the basics of Computer Science.  This is about giving children their first taster and getting them into CS!

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Kano, finally the education pack we need for Raspberry Pi

Make no mistake the Kano is not some terribly origianl or clever idea! People have been homebrewing great lessons on the Raspberry Pi and making kits that bring everything you need to play it.  I started doing it in July 2012 by putting together a kit to show everyone and Alan O'Donohoe has been touring the country with his Raspberry Jams to put together kits in a very Blue Peter kind of way with a few bits of sticky back plastic.

However Kano is the first company to try to bring all the bits and pieces that you need in one clean package with software and a learning scaffolding. In effect it's taken all the great ideas that people have seen in Raspberry Jams and put them into a single package.  A very effective way to create a wonderful teaching tool.   That is why I am so very glad that they are getting funding through Kickstarter and I know I will be keen to buy a few packs as soon as they become available!

Well Done to Kano for professionalising the Pi and bringing it back to its found principles of trying to encourage electronics and computer engineering in schools!

If you want to support the project, please visit their Kickstarter page:

Now all I have to do, is make my own kit for Thailand.... Oh well!

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Using the Pi With Google Docs

The Raspberry Pi is a great little bit of kit and wonderful for collecting sensor data.  However you can't analyse that data from the comfort of your office or home...If only there was some sort of Internet based Spreadsheet!

Well the good news is that the Pi is great with Python and there is a library especially created for this purpose. Install the gspread library and you can now easily create Spreadsheets for Google Docs.  Great news, huh!

Even better there's a full tutorial at:   This works with a humidty sensor, but it really shows the possibilities.

There are also some great tutorials for temperature sensors:

And a printable:

Now anything the Pi can sense can be recorded into a Spreadsheet and accessed from anywhere!

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Games Pit - Make your own games console!

This is a really nice little project for the Pi.  Imagine your local nursery who have a television, but nothing interactive really could really do with something cheap and fun for their children to play on.

1. Source all the parts needed for children friendly play.
2. Build a suitable case
3. Install the Pi with Games Pit (Make sure it auto boots)
4. Make some of your own games

As a term's project this would be really useful and a wonderful way to encourage people to take Raspberry Pis into the community.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

10 Good Reasons for girls to do Computer Science

Just 140 girls took A-level Computing last year. Now, I know it could be argued that they took Mathematics instead and are still planning to go into Computer Science. However I remember working at ARM and HR did everything possible to try to encourage women to apply, but even so about 90% of the applicants were men.

5 Noble Reasons 

  1. A woman invented coding, you can be part of the sisterhood. (Ada Lovelace)
  2. You can choose to focus on problem-solving or be creative
  3. Women have improved humanity, because of their coding skills. (Look to the right)
  4. It's actually a very caring profession. Great code makes people's lives easier, more fun and productive.
  5. You can give back to the world - Open Source is a movement to share applications and programs with the world.

5 Selfish Reasons

  1. It pays more than a lot of professions.
  2. You can work from home. If you have a child, you can easily take on freelance projects after the children have gone to bed. With programming you can have it all!
  3. I don't like to say this, but if you want to marry a rich man, your chances are greatly improved in the technology sector.
  4. There's no physical work in this. You don't have to do lots of horrible exercise. Unless you want to, but surely you'd prefer the air-conditioned gym included in your package? 
  5. You could work in a beautiful office with most of the chores done for you, have you seen Google or Apple's offices? 
P.S. Please get on with it, I don't want my daughter to have no friends when she grows up and becomes a Computer Scientist. I've bought her Computer Engineer Barbie and everything!

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Cambridge Computer Lab - 75 Years of excellence!

Last summer we were very privileged to host our Raspberry Jam in the Cambridge Computer Lab and the lab itself has a fascinating history. 

In 1938, the staff and students of the Anatomy School at the University of Cambridge moved to a new site, vacating their building in the heart of the city. Among the incoming occupants who took their place were founding members of a brand new service, which the University had only just approved. This “Mathematical Laboratory” began life as a two-man team, confined to the Anatomy School’s North Wing, and was charged with providing a resource for solving complex problems by “numerical methods”. On reflection, it would have been a struggle to give it a less assuming start in life. These events, nevertheless, marked the beginning of Cambridge computing.

This week, the Cambridge Computer Laboratory, as the former Mathematical Laboratory is now known, will host lectures and discussions on computing science and the entrepreneurship of its graduates and members, to celebrate its 75th anniversary. The event will salute achievements far beyond those which anyone would have thought necessary, let alone possible, when it was set up arguably as the world’s first Computer Laboratory. In contrast with its humble origins, the Lab today is comprehensively recognised as a world-leader in computing research and boasts large, modern premises, dozens of staff and hundreds of students. The laboratory has given rise to almost 200 spin-out technology firms, some of which have become major success stories in their own right. As such, it sits at the heart of the region’s cluster of high-tech businesses known as the “silicon fen”.

It was where EDSAC, the first programmable computer ever brought into general service, was built, and where microprogramming was pioneered by Maurice Wilkes, the Lab’s second Director, using EDSAC 2. Towards the end of the mainframe age, major advances were made in fields such as networked computing and computer-aided design. Cambridge’s Computer Lab was the home of the world’s first webcam. It was the place where Michael Burrows, the leading computer scientist in search engine development, learned his trade, and where Bjarne Stroustrup, inventor of the hugely popular computer language C++, did his PhD. Without the Lab, early home computers like the BBC Micro, or the low-power chip technology used in iPads and mobile phones, or the Raspberry Pi, might well never have emerged.

How was this achieved? Andy Hopper, Professor of Computer Technology and the current Head of the Lab, puts such accomplishments down to a culture and spirit of innovation which, he believes, has been the running theme of that 75-year history. “Today, the establishment mentality seems to be that you can industrialise innovation, or innovate on demand,” he observes. “You can’t do that any more than you can ask an artist to paint the next brilliant masterpiece. The success of the Cambridge Computer Lab has come about because we created a culture of innovation and nurtured innovative people within it.”

Even the beginnings of the Computer Lab disrupted the norm. When John Lennard-Jones, a Theoretical Chemist who was to become its first Director, submitted proposals for a computing facility in 1936, the very idea would have struck most people as extraordinary. At the time, a “computer” was a person, very frequently a mathematically gifted woman, employed to carry out tedious numerical calculations by hand.

Lennard-Jones’ visionary proposal was for a facility that would carry out complicated calculations in support of wider University research, with the human computers using “recent developments in mechanical and electrical aids to computation”. The Lab’s early hardware consisted of these machines, and two analog computers which were designed to solve linear differential equations.

In the decades that followed, however, the Lab’s role evolved far beyond Lennard-Jones’ own imaginings, and at a pace matched only by advances in computing itself. Much of this took place under the stewardship of Maurice Wilkes, the other inaugural staff member, and the pre-eminent figure in Cambridge’s computing story. Originally, Wilkes had the post of “University Demonstrator” at the Lab. When he returned to Cambridge after service during the war, he found that Lennard-Jones had moved on, and replaced him as Director.

EDSAC The first programmable computer
Rightly remembered as a computing pioneer, Wilkes spent more than 30 years in charge of the Lab, transformed it into a centre of excellence, and oversaw many of its greatest triumphs. His era began in 1946, when the Lab still comprised a smattering of mechanical machines arranged on benches. Under his leadership, EDSAC was pieced together in a former dissecting room of the Anatomy School. In the summer, there was an overwhelming stench of formalin, a solution used by the previous occupants to preserve dead bodies for study, which had soaked into the floorboards and vaporised in the heat. It must have been an odd atmosphere in which to give birth to foundational technology.

EDSAC was the first programmable computer to come into general use by scientists. On May 6, 1949, after a sometimes infuriating three-year construction period, it successfully completed its first programmed task by accurately calculating the squares of numbers from 0 to 99.

In the context of modern computing, the technology involved sounds almost laughable. Users prepared programs by punching them on to paper. Finished programs then hung on a line, waiting for machine operators to load them in (the original “job queue”). As academics themselves queued up to use EDSAC, they were thwarted by frequent breakdowns, often having worked into the night. The almost hopelessly complex task of designing the computer’s memory was solved by creating a mercury delay-line system, based on the principle of ultrasonic waves being pulsed through a tube filled with the element. Unfortunately, this sometimes leaked during the filling of the tubes, compelling users and technicians to negotiate hazardous globules of mercury on the floor.

The advances that followed during the 1980s included “UNIVERSE”, which interconnected several Cambridge Digital Rings using the European Space Agency’s Orbital Test Satellite, and demonstrated the feasibility of linking several local area networks on this basis. The follow-up, UNISON, improved the approach with a focus on Email, document transfer, and the exchange of multimedia information in real time.

One famous by-product of this type of research occurred in 1993. A team of researchers working in multimedia systems who shared the same coffee pot had decided to keep tabs on whether it was full or not by using a lashed-up camera to relay a live display to their desktops. An even better system, which emerged that year, was to display the image online through a web browser. The coffee pot thus became the object of the world’s first webcam, and gained a global cult following so large that, when it was switched off in 2001, the world’s media actively mourned its passing.

Many case studies of this phenomenon are discussed in depth by Haroon Ahmed in the pages of Cambridge Computing. The better-known number the likes of Acorn, which became a household name after developing the BBC Micro, part of the Corporation’s nationwide computer literacy campaign in the 1980s. Famously, the contract to do so was won after co-founder Hermann Hauser promised to deliver a prototype within a week, well aware that no such demonstration computer existed. He then assembled a team which successfully built the prototype, completing it five hours before the BBC arrived to sample it.

Acorn was mortally wounded in the home computing market crash of 1984, but groundwork undertaken there on chip design ultimately led to the foundation of Cambridge’s most famous existing spin-out firm. Advanced RISC Machines Ltd (ARM) was set up in 1990 and its technology was picked up by Apple, initially for its hand-held Newton computer system. Today billions of chips are produced by ARM and sold to major clients around the world, featuring in the likes of the iPad and iPhone.

Raspberry Pi
More recent examples of companies founded by Lab members include Real VNC, which commercialised software - the Virtual Network Computer – enabling one computer to take over the screen, keyboard and mouse of another. It became key to remote support for customers in the IT sector and was ultimately licensed for use in Google products, consumer appliances and the automotive industry. In 2008, meanwhile, the charity Raspberry Pi was set up by a team of current and former Lab members to create an ultra-small, cheap computer with the express aim of encouraging children to learn computer science. Founded amid concerns that the number of University applicants for the subject across Britain was falling, it to some extent echoes the achievements of the BBC Micro team at Acorn almost a quarter of a century earlier.

Adapted from: