Monday, February 25, 2008

Going Unplugged: Teaching Computing without Computers

Dr. Tim BellAssociate Professor Tim Bell, the founder and one of the principle authors of CSUnplugged dropped by to tell us more about the project.

NZCSRSC: Tim, we are very pleased to be working in partnership with CSUnplugged to organise the Unplugged Workshop (17, 18 April) in conjunction with the NZCSRSC’08. We’re excited that NZ ICT students can be involved in this type of a project; one that has such an influence on our future generations. However, for those who aren’t familiar with this project … what is CSUnplugged? ... and where is it used?

Tim: Thank you! This conference is a great opportunity to share these ideas with postgraduate students. CSUnplugged is a collection of fun teaching materials that we used to demonstrate university Computer Science concepts to pre-schoolers so they can decide if they want to be computer scientists when they grow up instead of train drivers. Well, that's the extreme version... it gets used at all sorts of levels in education, but the most interesting point for me is when kids are around 12 years old, and aren't thinking they're too cool to have fun with new ideas, but are about to make important career decisions (like, "I might as well only scrape through in maths, since computer science doesn't use maths, right?" or "I love communicating with people, so there's no way I'd want to get involved in a loner job like software engineering, right?")

It's always easier to explain Unplugged with a video [01:43 min] example...
In English or in Swedish, or Chinese, or Korean ....

NZCSRSC: It looks like so much fun, Tim! So, why CSUnplugged? What led to the need to create this project?
Tim: It is fun! And the kids think so too. Unplugged started for me when I was asked to give a talk about computers to my son's class in the early 80's, and wanted to try to convey what Computer Science is to 5 year olds. Showing them a laptop wouldn't be particularly impressive, and how interesting would watching an O(nlog n) sorting algorithm be for kids who mainly think of computers as a games machine?

So I took the radical step of not using a computer at all. I turned some CS ideas into games and puzzles, which turned out to be (mainly) very engaging for the kids, and a lot of fun for me.

15 years later, and the collection of games has grown, but the basic material is still useful. The problem is that the way school students encounter computing these days is mainly through learning MS Office, or making web pages, or perhaps a little programming. From this they make wrong assumptions about what a career in CS would involve... and this is a large part of the explanation of falling numbers of students enrolling in CS, despite the huge growth in demand from employers.

NZCSRSC: And this home-grown project has gone international too …

Tim: Yes! In fact, in the last couple of years it surprised me as it has generated huge international interest from the CS community. Unplugged has turned up in lots of places: the ACM K-12 curriculum uses it as examples of good practice, it is used by famous universities including CMU, UCLA, U Washington and Purdue as part of their school outreach programmes, and NCWIT use it to promote IT to young women. It has been published in Korea and Japan --- in Korea it is directly influencing the national school curriculum, which is pretty cool considering it is one of the leading nations in plugged in technology. Translations into about 10 other languages are also underway, supported by enthusiasts all over the world. Google have given substantial sponsorship to Unplugged to help address the low enrolments in CS. And to drop a few names, Peter Denning is a strong supporter of Unplugged, and is using it as part of a new initiative that involves luminaries like Vint Cerf and Peter Neumann, to improve the image of CS.

NZCSRSC: Wow that’s very cool! So what are some of the future plans?

Tim: Apart from eventually making the world a happier place by replacing all computers with pen, paper, strings and sellotape, we want to publish lots more activities to cover more areas of computer science; and adapt and translate activities for into different formats... for example, there is work on activities for the disabled, video versions, a parent-and-child activity book, and an animated story version. The movie rights are still up for grabs.

In the meantime, we want to share the resources with lots of people (and get their ideas too)... which is why we're hooking into the NZCSRS conference, and offering a free afternoon, evening and morning playing with these cool ideas.

NZCSRSC: Thanks Tim! I wish we had learned CS this way! We're looking forward to experiencing more of these activities hands-on at the Workshop.

The CSUnplugged workshop will follow the NZCSRSC 2008 (17, 18 April). Register for the Workshop to attend!

1 comment:

cheap computers said...

I guess the problem is that the way school students encounter computing these days is mainly through learning MS Office, or making web pages, or perhaps a little programming.