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Computer Science Unplugged: school students doing real computing without computers

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The Computer Science Unplugged project provides ways to expose students to ideas from Computer Science without having to use computers. This has a number of applications, including outreach, school curriculum support, and clubs. The "Unplugged" project, based at Canterbury University, uses activities, games, magic tricks and competitions to show children the kind of thinking that is expected of a computer scientist. All of the activities are available free of charge at csunplugged.org. The project has recently enjoyed widespread adoption internationally, and substantial industry support. It is recommended in the ACM K-12 curriculum, and has been translated into 12 languages. As well as simply providing teaching resources, there is a very active program developing and evaluating new formats and activities. This includes adaptations of the kinaesthetic activities in virtual worlds; integration with other outreach tools such as the Alice language, adaptation for use by students in large classrooms, and videos to help teachers and presenters understand how to use the material. This paper will explore why this approach has become popular, and describe developments and adaptations that are being used for outreach and teaching around New Zealand, as well as internationally. Authors Tim Bell is Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering at the University of Canterbury, where he has been for 20 years. He is the recipient of several teaching awards, including an inaugural NZ TTEA in 2002. In the past his main research has been in text compression, and he is the co-author of three books and many papers on this topic. Jason Alexander is a Ph.D. student in the Human-Computer Interaction lab in the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering at the University of Canterbury. He has presented many Unplugged shows over the last three years. He is currently in the concluding stages of his thesis entitled Understanding and Improving Electronic Document Navigation. Isaac Freeman has a Graduate Diploma in Computer Science, a Diploma in Teaching, and a Masters in Mathematics. He has worked as a classroom teacher, and is now a fulltime web designer and developer. Mick Grimley is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Educational Studies and Human Development at the University of Canterbury. Mick is interested in the enhancement of learning, and in particular as it relates to cognition, motivation, interest, interactivity, new technologies and e-learning. These interests have led him into the study of how technology can be leveraged to improve learning.
From a video demonstrating a parallel sorting network Another way to engage with schools is through competitions. In computing, these have traditionally been focussed on programming, but there is also interest in “non-programming” competitions. In 2007 we experimented with having intermediate school students (age about 10 to 12) prepare entries for two local competitions, “Cantamath”, and the Canterbury-Westland Science fair. The students worked in groups to present a write-up based on a chosen activity from Unplugged. In the process we found that the students became heavily engaged with their topic, gaining a deeper understanding because they had to explain it to their peers. The opportunity to win a prize provided motivation, although there is a risk with cash prizes at science fairs that there may not be any recognition for good work that doesn’t happen to be in the top few that “win” (Somers & Callan 1999). Consequently, a student who is quite competent in the area could be discouraged from continuing. This can be avoided by having “standard” based awards e.g. a “highly commended” award to any project that attains a suitable standard. We found that it was important to provide expert help for the students, particularly because the idea of doing Computer Science without computers seemed like an impossible challenge unless the students had sufficient exposure to the Unplugged material. Provided these issues are addressed, this format is promising as it provides an opportunity for students to apply scientific method to ideas from computing and to engage deeply with the topic. Interviews with students at the end of the course showed that the students had an increased level of interest in Computer Science, they had a clearer view of the relationship between CS and mathematics, and some had grasped quite advanced concepts. Personalising the activities (for example, using a photo of a teacher) increased the impact, as did having them more involved in an activity (rather than watching a sub-group of the class doing the activity). Another application of the Unplugged material is for shows in a number of formats, for audiences such as a school assembly, a science centre demonstration, and a science festival event. These shows tend to focus more on entertainment and a little less on education, but the main goal is still to get the message across that Computer
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Computer Science Unplugged: school students doing real computing
without computers
Tim Bell
Computer Science and
Software Engineering,
University of Canterbury
tim.bell@
canterbury.ac.nz
Jason Alexander
Computer Science and
Software Engineering,
University of Canterbury
jason.alexander@
pg.canterbury.ac.nz
Isaac Freeman
Computer Science and
Software Engineering,
University of Canterbury
isaac@
freeman.org.nz
Mick Grimley
School of Education
Studies and Human
Development,
University of Canterbury
michael.grimley@
canterbury.ac.nz
Abstract
The Computer Science Unplugged project provides ways
to expose students to ideas from Computer Science
without having to use computers. This has a number of
applications, including outreach, school curriculum
support, and clubs.
The “Unplugged” project, based at Canterbury University,
uses activities, games, magic tricks and competitions to
show children the kind of thinking that is expected of a
computer scientist. All of the activities are available free
of charge at csunplugged.org.
The project has recently enjoyed widespread adoption
internationally, and substantial industry support. It is
recommended in the ACM K-12 curriculum, and has been
translated into 12 languages. As well as simply providing
teaching resources, there is a very active program
developing and evaluating new formats and activities.
This includes adaptations of the kinaesthetic activities in
virtual worlds; integration with other outreach tools such
as the Alice language, adaptation for use by students in
large classrooms, and videos to help teachers and
presenters understand how to use the material.
This paper will explore why this approach has become
popular, and describe developments and adaptations that
are being used for outreach and teaching around New
Zealand, as well as internationally.
Keywords: Computer science outreach, kinaesthetic
teaching
Authors
Tim Bell is Associate Professor in the Department of
Computer Science and Software Engineering at the
University of Canterbury, where he has been for 20 years.
He is the recipient of several teaching awards, including
an inaugural NZ TTEA in 2002. In the past his main
research has been in text compression, and he is the co-
author of three books and many papers on this topic.
Jason Alexander is a Ph.D. student in the Human-
Computer Interaction lab in the Department of Computer
Science and Software Engineering at the University of
Canterbury. He has presented many Unplugged shows
over the last three years. He is currently in the concluding
stages of his thesis entitled Understanding and Improving
Electronic Document Navigation.
Isaac Freeman has a Graduate Diploma in Computer
Science, a Diploma in Teaching, and a Masters in
Mathematics. He has worked as a classroom teacher, and
is now a fulltime web designer and developer.
Mick Grimley is a Senior Lecturer in the School of
Educational Studies and Human Development at the
University of Canterbury. Mick is interested in the
enhancement of learning, and in particular as it relates to
cognition, motivation, interest, interactivity, new
technologies and e-learning. These interests have led him
into the study of how technology can be leveraged to
improve learning.
1 Introduction
The desire for a “knowledge-based economy” and a
recognition that successful companies based on software
and hardware development can make major contributions
to a country’s earnings has resulted in a push for students
to become better skilled in “ICT”. Unfortunately this term
is very broad, and can include anything from knowing
how to add up numbers in a spreadsheet, to developing a
video website that sells for US$1.65 billion. The
spreadsheet skills are important, but the major impact on
the economy will be from novel services built on
complex and secure computer systems. Systems such as
YouTube, Google, Apple’s iPod, Facebook, and other
technology success stories, depend on having inventive
developers who can deploy a range of skills, including
programming, security, parallel computation, data
compression, human-computer interface design, and other
areas that are the domain of Computer Science, Computer
Engineering and related disciplines.
The difficulty is that for many school students, ICT is
simply word processing and web browsing, and they have
a poor understanding of what a computing career involves
(Yardi & Bruckman 2007). While it isn’t necessarily
appropriate for them to learn advanced topics such as
graph algorithms while at school, some exposure to the
breadth of topics available in Computer Science is
valuable to help them plan a career, rather than avoiding
ICT study because it would appear to be things like
“advanced Powerpoint techniques”.
Many countries face the problem of declining numbers of
students enrolling in Computer Science despite an
increasing demand from employers for such skills.
Presenting Computer Science to school students is a
challenge for a number of reasons: it is difficult to fit into
a full curriculum, few teachers have the background to
teach it, and administrators don’t understand what it is.
Not only are overall enrolments declining, but the
situation is even worse for female students, where US
statistics (www.cra.org) show that their numbers are
declining at a higher rate than males. These trends have
been reflected in many other countries, including New
Zealand.
Many programmes have been devised to address these
issues, including videos showing what a career in
computing is like, computing camps (e.g. Adams. 2007,
Doerschuk, Liu, & Mann 2007), and mentoring
programmes (e.g. Bennett, Briggs, & Clark 2006).
Inaccurate stereotypes of computing careers cause two
problems: not only do they cause students to avoid a
career that they may have found interesting, but they also
“burn bridges” at an early age by not taking an interest in
skills that will be important in a career in computing,
including maths (working with symbolic notation) and
communication (working with other people).
An approach to this problem that has found considerable
traction internationally is the “Computer Science
Unplugged” project, based at the University of
Canterbury. The project provides free resources for CS
outreach and teaching on its web site, csunplugged.org. It
takes the unusual approach of exposing children to the
great ideas of Computer Science without using computers.
Later we will discuss how this can be achieved, but we
note that this does not involve simply having children
simulate the running of a computer, which in itself can be
a very tedious activity. Generally, the unplugged activities
involve problem solving to achieve a goal, and in the
process dealing with fundamental concepts from
Computer Science. For example, one activity involves
trying to work out an incomplete “pirates’ map” that is
actually a finite state automaton; the activity involves
running around the playground, trying to find a path to
“Treasure Island” (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Visiting a node in a finite state machine (aka
drawing a pirates’ map)
Having activities away from computers is effective
because children generally know the computer as a tool or
toy, rather than the subject of study in itself. By stepping
away from the computer they are able to think about
issues that Computer Scientists face beyond simply
programming. Topics such as algorithm complexity, data
compression, graphics algorithms, interface design and
models of computing can be tackled without having
technical experience as a prerequisite. In many cases,
children find the topics fascinating, but would otherwise
have had to jump the hurdle of learning to program before
they could engage in the deeper topics that the subject
offers.
In addition to educating students about what Computer
Science is, Computer Science Unplugged engages
students in “Computational Thinking” (Wing, 2006).
Advocates of Computational Thinking argue that there are
ways of approaching problems based on Computer
Science that are valuable to all students, regardless of
whether or not they intend to study Computer Science as a
specialism. Computational Thinking isn’t (necessarily)
used to solve problems with a computer, but to use ideas
from Computer Science to solve real-world problems. For
example, suppose you are trying to communicate with
someone who can only blink their eyes. Would you get
them to spell out words by reading out the letters of the
alphabet (“a”, “b”, “c”…) and getting them to blink to
select one? Or are there faster approaches? Someone
exercising Computational Thinking could consider
various approaches to a problem – divide and conquer,
greedy or brute force solutions, or whether there are limits
on how fast a solution is possible. They would be able to
consider recursive approaches, sequential and concurrent
approaches, or come up with useful abstractions. Even
though the problem doesn’t necessarily involve any kind
of computer, the application of Computer Science ideas
can solve a real-life problem.
One reason that the Unplugged approach has gained
traction is because it is easy to implement as an outreach
tool for computing programmes. Other outreach activities
(e.g. mentoring and programming courses) can require a
significant commitment from the start in time and/or
resources, whereas it is possible to have a significant
impact with “Unplugged” on a single one-hour visit to a
school. This in turn means that sessions are more likely to
happen as the presenter has an engaging way to interact
with a class, while still exploring real Computer Science
concepts. To this end, the Unplugged web site provides a
rich range of free resources, including ready-to-print class
material, videos, background material, and check lists for
preparation. Small amounts of “face time” with students
can be surprisingly valuable, given that role models are an
important factor in influencing career decisions. This is
particularly the case for female role models (staff and
students), who make up a relatively small proportion of
most IT programs, and may not be able to carry the
weight of an extended program, but are able to find the
occasional time for a school visit.
In the last few years the CS Unplugged project has had a
large international uptake. It gained visibility in the US
after being added to the ACM recommendations for the
K-12 curriculum (Tucker et al. 2003), in Asia through
research done in the department of CS Education at Korea
University (Yoo et al. 2006), and later through an
enhanced web presence due to sponsorship from Google
Inc. The sponsorship has meant that all of the activities
are available on-line at no charge, and new material can
be developed to keep the project fresh.
The audience for this material has grown over the years.
Initially it was intended for outreach, but in some
countries it is starting to be used as teaching material in
the curriculum, which brings up issues that will be
discussed later. The material has also been adapted for
use with larger groups, such as shows at science festivals,
or school assemblies. The unplugged approach even
helped a jury of lay people understand CS concepts
during a patent infringement case.
Unplugged has proved valuable for community talks. For
example, the first author has given several talks to
“Seniornet”, a users’ support group for senior citizens.
While the main purpose of Seniornet is to help people use
computers, the members appreciate getting some
background into the principles behind the systems they
are using, if it is presented in an engaging way. This may
not seem like a fruitful form of outreach, but in fact
grandparents can have significant influence over
decisions made by their grandchildren, and even more so
as they are increasingly being asked to help fund their
education. Other groups that provide access to such an
audience include service organisations like Probus and
Rotary, who often sponsor educational activities.
For teachers who normally work in computer labs, the
Unplugged material also provides a welcome break from
working in front of computer screens. One teacher in
Japan commented: “Now the teacher sees the children’s
faces instead of the back of the computers”.
The Unplugged material is used by organisations wishing
to support teachers; as well as being prominent in the
ACM K-12 curriculum, it has been promoted by the
CSTA (Computer Science Teachers Association, an
international organisation aimed at school teachers), and
has been used by NCWIT (the US National Center for
Women & Information Technology) to help promote
technology careers to young women. The Unplugged
project is influencing the “Rebooting Computing”
initiative, which is an offshoot of Peter Denning’s “Great
Principles” project (Denning 2007), intended to change
the image of Computer Science through a grass-roots
movement involving significant players in the field of
CS.
To ensure that the project has appropriate vision and
direction, CS Unplugged now has an advisory group of
28 influential CS educators and practitioners from 10
countries. This group represents a range of educational
institutions (primary through to tertiary), as well as
associated organisations (e.g. CSTA, Science Museums),
industry (e.g. Microsoft and Google), and a variety of
cultures (Asia, Europe, North America, and Australasia).
In this paper, which an expansion of a paper presented at
NACCQ (Bell et al., 2008), we first give an overview of a
typical Unplugged activity, and then describe a number of
different presentation formats that are available. A
description of the key attributes that make up a good
activity is given, and then we discuss the use of
Unplugged internationally. We conclude with a look at
our current Unplugged research, including the use of
Second Life to teach the concepts to those who are unable
to participate physically.
2 Unplugged activities
The “Unplugged” activities generally involve some kind
of challenge that students try to solve themselves. For
example, in the activity on “Routing and Deadlock”
shown in Figure 2, each student is wearing a different
coloured t-shirt, and there are five different colours of
fruit that must be passed around the circle using a simple
rule, with the goal of getting each piece of fruit to the
person who has the t-shirt with the corresponding colour.
There are two pieces of fruit of each colour except for
one colour. Each student holds two pieces of fruit, one in
each hand, except for one of them who will have an
empty hand. The rule is that they can only pass a piece of
fruit to a neighbour who has an empty hand.
In order to solve this problem the students will discover,
for example, that sometimes you may have to give up a
piece of fruit even though it is the correct colour for you,
otherwise a deadlock situation can arise. After performing
the exercise, a discussion of routing and deadlock for
information on the internet can draw on the experience,
although in the game the “buffer” size was very small
just one free slot at one server!
Figure 2: The “Orange Game” – a routing and
deadlock-avoidance challenge
Other activities on the Unplugged site include data
compression, image representation, graph algorithms,
HCI evaluation, and sorting (e.g. quicksort) and searching
(e.g. hashing) algorithms.
3 Formats of Unplugged
The CS Unplugged material has diversified into a variety
of formats; this includes versions such as video
demonstrations, a show, and outdoor events. In this
section we highlight some of the formats and their
applications.
The original format of the material was a series of
activities describing how to present 20 different CS topics
for outreach in a classroom situation. This was later
redeveloped into a book aimed at teachers, with
information about tying into the curriculum (making it
easier to justify giving up class time for the activity), and
ready-to-copy material for handouts.
The program is primarily aimed at outreach, where the
goal is that the audience will leave with a better
perception of what Computer Science is – that it is more
than just programming, and that it isn’t a “boring,
solitary” occupation (Yardi & Bruckman 2007). Recently
there has been considerable interest in developing the
activities into curriculum resources, which require more
contextual information for teachers, and assessment. At
least three US schools (New Roads in Los Angeles,
Pomfret School in Connecticut, and AMSACS in Boston)
are using the material as a course in itself, and are helping
us to develop material to share with other teachers.
Interestingly, all of these schools are private, as the public
system in the US puts a lot of pressure on teachers to
follow prescribed curricula strictly, particularly through
the “No Child Left Behind” policy which assesses
schools based on student performances in standardised
tests.
Normally the Unplugged books are aimed at teachers and
academics, but a new version was developed in early
2009 for use by the students themselves. This version has
currently been developed for Chinese high school
students, but is now being adapted for the western
classroom. The 15 topics it covers are still completely
“Unplugged”, in that they do not teach how to use
computers, but they do contain a lot of information
relating the activities to how they affect people in their
day-to-day use of computers. For example, students learn
run-length encoding for images, which is then related to
other image compression systems; or parity error
checking, which is related to RAID systems; or Minimal
Spanning Trees, which are related to algorithms on
graphs for network layout design. In addition, each of the
topics has a “Curiosity” which shows an interesting or
unusual application of the concept in the topic. For
example, Figure 3 shows a bracelet that codes a girl’s
name as 5-bit binary numbers (black/white are 1/0
respectively, and the number codes the position of the
letter in the alphabet), and Figure 4 shows an example of
deadlock at a street intersection.
We are planning to evaluate a westernised version of this
student book for use in New Zealand High Schools. If
successful, it provides a way to teach computer science to
senior students that has substance, but doesn’t rely on the
students learning how to program first, and if they are
able to program, it is independent of programming
languages. Programming exercises will be added to each
topic (for example, for the parity game, students could be
asked to write a program that detects which bit is
incorrect in a two-dimensional input).
Figure 3: Girl’s name coded in binary on a bracelet
Figure 4: Deadlock at an intersection
Unplugged is also having an influence on the curriculum
in Korea, where offline activities have been evaluated for
teaching computing at primary school level (Choi et al.
2008). The main outcomes of this evaluation are that for
curriculum use, teachers need a lot of help so that they
can explain the purpose of the topics to their classes, and
they need assessment so that they can evaluate the
learning.
One of the goals of the Unplugged web site
(csunplugged.org) is to provide a mechanism for
educators to exchange ideas, including teaching methods
and ways to integrate the activities with the curriculum.
The site is still under development, but is already
becoming a clearinghouse for publishing new ideas and
variations (with due credit), as well as publicising events
and workshops that teachers can attend.
Videos of the activities have proved helpful for
demonstrating how the activities work to those
considering them for outreach and teaching. Because the
activities are very kinaesthetic, the video is better able to
show the engagement than a textual description. For
example, Figure 5 shows a scene from a video
demonstrating a parallel sorting network, where the
students are comparing 6-digit numbers and following the
lines on the floor to (hopefully) get the numbers into
ascending order. The videos have had their sound tracks
translated into Korean, Chinese, Japanese, German and
Swedish, with other translations planned (including
Maori). Interestingly, the main cultural incongruity noted
by some viewers is the uniforms worn by the children; in
some countries this is quite unusual, while in others it is
the norm. Another issue with translations is that some
phrases in the commentary take more time in their
translated version, so in our later versions we have
allowed more gaps in the English commentary to avoid
having to rush or elide the translated version.
The videos are freely available on the internet, primarily
through YouTube. However, some schools block access
to YouTube, and so the videos have also been distributed
by the more accessible site, TeacherTube.com.
Figure 5: From a video demonstrating a parallel
sorting network
Another way to engage with schools is through
competitions. In computing, these have traditionally been
focussed on programming, but there is also interest in
“non-programming” competitions. In 2007 we
experimented with having intermediate school students
(age about 10 to 12) prepare entries for two local
competitions, “Cantamath”, and the Canterbury-Westland
Science fair. The students worked in groups to present a
write-up based on a chosen activity from Unplugged. In
the process we found that the students became heavily
engaged with their topic, gaining a deeper understanding
because they had to explain it to their peers. The
opportunity to win a prize provided motivation, although
there is a risk with cash prizes at science fairs that there
may not be any recognition for good work that doesn’t
happen to be in the top few that “win” (Somers & Callan
1999). Consequently, a student who is quite competent in
the area could be discouraged from continuing. This can
be avoided by having “standard” based awards e.g. a
“highly commended” award to any project that attains a
suitable standard. We found that it was important to
provide expert help for the students, particularly because
the idea of doing Computer Science without computers
seemed like an impossible challenge unless the students
had sufficient exposure to the Unplugged material.
Provided these issues are addressed, this format is
promising as it provides an opportunity for students to
apply scientific method to ideas from computing and to
engage deeply with the topic. Interviews with students at
the end of the course showed that the students had an
increased level of interest in Computer Science, they had
a clearer view of the relationship between CS and
mathematics, and some had grasped quite advanced
concepts. Personalising the activities (for example, using
a photo of a teacher) increased the impact, as did having
them more involved in an activity (rather than watching a
sub-group of the class doing the activity).
Another application of the Unplugged material is for
shows in a number of formats, for audiences such as a
school assembly, a science centre demonstration, and a
science festival event. These shows tend to focus more on
entertainment and a little less on education, but the main
goal is still to get the message across that Computer
Science is more than just programming, and involves
team work. A one-hour video of a typical show is
available on-line
(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpDDPWVn5-Q).
The shows generally start with the parity “magic trick”,
where an error correcting code is used to determine which
card a student has flipped over, at the same time
introducing the concept of binary representation. Other
gimmicks include celebrating the birthday of a member of
the audience using binary representation of their age in
the candles, and then using “divide and conquer” to
divide the cake in half, and half again, showing how
quickly problems reduce when they have logarithmic
complexity. Humour is an important element; for
example, the audience is challenged to call out colours
that are subject to interference by showing text printed in
a different colour to the one shown, which is an example
of the Stroop effect (Stroop 1935). This is used to
introduce interference in Human-Computer Interaction
(HCI), such as confusing labels on buttons in interfaces
(e.g. the “Start” button in Windows XP is used to stop the
computer; or the confusion that users sometimes
experience when presented with the “Yes”, “No” and
“Cancel” options). This quickly leads to discussion of
other poor interface designs, and ultimately to the notion
that HCI is a very important part of CS, and requires a
good understanding of human behaviour.
Adapting Unplugged activities to themes is an important
way to get access to schools; for example, if a class is
studying World War II (history), then an Unplugged
session beginning with the Enigma ciphers and moving
on to encryption methods can be used to fit in with the
topic. To illustrate this adaptability, the Unplugged team
try to present variations of the activities in a variety of
contexts. For example, the 2009 SIGCSE conference was
held in Chattanooga (Tennessee), and a series of CS-
based puzzles was given to participants based on the
“Chattanooga Choo Choo” theme (such as the one in
Figure 6).
Many of the Unplugged activities are suitable for use
outdoors, which can be useful as a break from being in a
classroom, and combines physical activity with problem
solving. Puzzles or tracks can be marked out on the
ground using, for example, chalk on pavement, or signs
posted around the playground. At the University of
Canterbury some of these activities have been landscaped
into a “Maths/Computer Science garden” (Figure 7),
which includes the seven bridges problem, a 6-way
sorting network, and an 8-queens puzzle. Running around
the seven bridges and reasoning about the solution
provides a valuable break from lecture theatre activities
for school visits, and even regular student classes.
Yet another format that the activities are being adapted to
is (somewhat ironically) an on-line game, where children
can exercise the skills they have learned and explore
patterns and algorithms in an interactive environment that
they can use at their own pace. So far three of the
activities are available this way, as Flash-based games. A
related future project is to investigate the value of
combining “Unplugged” with programming in children’s
languages such as Scratch and Alice. These languages are
based around animation, and if a student is able to
animate an activity that they have just been doing
physically then they will have essentially implemented
the logic of the problem, which is not dissimilar to a
conventional programming exercise for a CS class.
Currently we are not aware of any trials of this approach,
although there are camps that have been run that have the
students doing Unplugged activities in one part of the
day, and (unrelated) programming activities at a different
time.
Figure 6: A shortest paths algorithm adapted for a
“Chattanooga Choo Choo” theme
Figure 7: A maths and computer science garden
Providing information about the programme to teachers is
also very important. We have run a number of workshops
for teachers to help them understand the point of the
activities, and to motivate them to use them. These have
been quite effective, as teachers themselves usually
appreciate their new understanding of the concepts, and
they are able to use the workshops as part of the
professional development they are expected to undertake
regularly.
We have also run workshops for CS academics, and a
particularly worthwhile activity early in 2008 was a
workshop for 40 postgraduate CS students who were in
Christchurch for a research students’ conference. In the
workshop we demonstrated Unplugged by bringing in 60
intermediate school students and running a one hour show
with the 40 postgrads observing. One unexpected benefit
was that as a topic was covered in the show we asked the
postgraduate students to raise their hand to identify who
was doing research in that area. The impact on both the
postgraduates and school students was tangible the
school students were able to meet a large group of
researchers who probably broke their stereotype of what
they would have expected, and the postgraduate students
were able to see relatively young children engaging with
advanced topics from Computer Science.
4 Designing kinaesthetic activities
As the name suggests, a key principle of the Unplugged
program is to develop teaching methods for CS that are
independent of using computers. The rationale for this
was given in the introduction of this paper. We do not
promote this to the exclusion of other approaches (such as
children’s programming languages), but we have chosen
to focus on this method and push it as far as we can,
publishing the ideas that come from it for the benefit of
others.
Apart from being “off-line”, the main principles of the
project are:
A focus on demonstrating CS concepts, rather than
programming, as programming can be a bottleneck
that prevents some students from ever finding out
what the deeper concepts are.
Making the activities kinaesthetic, generally on a
large scale, involving team work.
The activities should be fun and engaging, and not
just busy work.
The materials should be low cost.
The material is released using a creative commons
licence, so that others can pass them on freely and
make their own contributions.
The activities aim to be gender neutral (or at least,
attractive to girls), and tend to focus on cooperative
approaches rather than individualistic ones.
The activities often have a sense of story to capture
interest and motivate children. The stories can be
somewhat fantastical (such as the pirate commuting
service or a child communicating by lighting up a
Christmas tree), as this appeals to children’s
imagination.
We generally encourage children to discover answers
for themselves (with Socratic style questioning or
constructivist activities), since the purpose is not to
teach the answer, but have them “play” with the
concepts.
The activities should be reasonably error resilient, so
that small errors on the part of a child or teacher do
not ruin the primary outcome.
To evaluate if an activity fits in with the Unplugged
philosophy, we look for simplicity (the rules can be
explained quite quickly), engagement (the activity is
attractive for children), and cooperation or competition
(the children are motivated to work towards a goal, either
as part of a team, or to try to find a better/faster solution
than another group).
Activities have been developed in a number of ways.
Some are simply adaptations of existing ideas and games,
while others have resulted from taking a concept that we
wish to illustrate, and working out how it can be turned
into a challenge (Nishida et al, 2009). The first step here
is to work out the key elements of the CS concept, such
as bits, states, weights, transitions, or comparisons.
Sometimes games or toys can be identified that use those
elements (for example, cards have two sides that
correspond to the two values of a bit; balance scales can
compare two values at a time; stickers can be used to
make choices permanent; strings and chalk lines can be
used to dictate transitions). The problem then needs to be
turned into a challenge, perhaps to find a solution (such
as a path to a goal), or the find the best solution (such as
the shortest path).
Once an activity has been designed, it is tested with
students, and inevitably will need some adjustment to
make it engaging, or even feasible. Often such elements
are hard to predict; some apparently simple activities turn
out to be very motivating for children, and vice versa. We
have recently added a “half bakery” to the Unplugged site
for activities that are still being refined, as the main
collection is for tried and tested activities, with variations
and adaptations suggested based on experience.
5 Internationalisation of Unplugged
The Unplugged program has generated interest around
the world, and currently has advocates in at least 16
countries, in addition to international organisations such
as the ACM/CSTA.
The reason for interest can vary between countries; some
are interested in growing interest in students, others want
to use it for school curricula, some are interested in novel
teaching methods, and other countries have very limited
access to computers and wish to use it to make it possible
to teach the topic at all.
The international interest is reflected in multiple
translations of the material becoming available. The
teachers’ edition of the material (12 activities) has been
published in Korean, Japanese, Italian and Spanish, with
drafts versions completed in simplified Chinese (for
mainland China), traditional Chinese (Taiwan), and
Arabic. Partially completed versions exist in Hebrew and
German, and initiatives are in earlier stages for Swedish,
French, Greek, Bahasa Indonesia, Tamil and Bengali. The
web site is also being translated into several languages,
and the videos are available in six languages.
Taking materials to other countries involves more than
just translating the text (Bell et al. 2008). For example,
several of the activities rely on using the English alphabet
as a character set, with 26 characters that can, for
example, be represented using a 5-bit code. In contrast,
Chinese has thousands of characters, and even the
simplest forms of Japanese require around 50 characters.
Korean has just 24 characters, but they are combined to
form new characters. All of these issues can be dealt with,
but need some care to make sure that the point of the
exercise is still achieved.
There are other cultural issues, such as an example which
uses Christmas trees, and even the assumption that space
will be available for some of the outdoor activities (in
some countries it is not unusual for a school to be upstairs
in a high-rise building).
The Unplugged project has brought about strong
collaboration between educators in China, Korea and
Japan, and there have been two workshops in Wuhan
(China) in 2007 and 2008 with the purpose of sharing
ideas and developing plans for promoting Unplugged in
that part of the world. An important aspect of Unplugged
is that it should be self-sustaining, which is achieved by
local groups developing the program for themselves with
support from the main project run from Canterbury.
6 Current research
A number of research projects are underway to further
develop the Unplugged activities.
New activities are being developed to cover some gaps
from the field of Computer Science, so that researchers
can have a wide range of resources available to enable
them to draw on them if they wish to talk to students
about a particular area.
Sometimes it isn’t always possible for students to carry
out some of the activities due to a lack of space, other
people to play with, or mobility disabilities. We are
evaluating using Unplugged activities in Second life
(http://secondlife.com/), an on-line virtual world in which
computer users can control avatars and interact with
others in real time, from around the real world. For
example, Figure 8 shows a sorting network from
Unplugged in Second Life. The network is placed on the
ground, and avatars wear t-shirts to show the number that
they are sorting. Navigation requires only basic keystroke
input, so it is accessible to people with very limited
mobility. Six players are required to do the activity, but
they could be anywhere around the world, as long as they
have Internet access (and in fact, automated “players” can
also be used). Of course, there is an irony that one of the
most electronic forms of social interaction is being used
to do “Unplugged” activities, but the benefit remains that
students do not need to learn programming before
engaging with advanced computer science concepts.
Figure 8: A sorting network in Second Life.
A related project that is very much focussed on the story-
telling approach to exposing young students to CS is the
story of Si Piuh (Bianco & Tinazzi, 2004), based on
fictitious characters (Figure 9) who live in a computer
(the “realm of Si Piuh” – pronounced CPU). We are
looking into the possibility of incorporating these
characters with a visually based programming language
such as Alice, and then having children experiment with
kinaesthetic activities from Unplugged in this
environment, combining the motivation of story, the
activities of Unplugged, and the experience of computer
programming. We are also combining the characters of Si
Piuh (who primarily perform the role of hardware) with
some of the challenges in Unplugged (which are
primarily about data and algorithms) to produce cartoon
stories where the hardware characters must solve the
fictitious Unplugged problems. Since many of the
Unplugged problems are based on fictitious stories, this
seems to be a fruitful source of engaging plots for the Si
Piuh characters. Part of such a cartoon is shown in Figure
10, where the bus driver is delivering data that needs to
be decompressed using an LZ method.
Figure 9: The character “Vi Giei” (VGA) from the
Realm of Si Piuh
Figure 10: Combining the characters from Si Piuh
with the problems in Unplugged.
7 Conclusion
The “Unplugged” project has grown from a collection of
classroom activities into a large variety of outreach and
teaching tools, used in many countries and for several
purposes. The overarching goal is to develop a
community that is able to share good teaching practices
and novel ideas that build on the key idea of enabling
students to explore Computer Science without having to
first learn programming. This community is growing
rapidly, and there is now a large variety of educational
approaches based on the concept.
8 Acknowledgments
We are grateful to Richard Bell from Shuriken Video for
assistance with the project, and the photos of activities.
The activities on which this project is based have
benefitted from the input of many people, and especially
Mike Fellows (who designed many of them) and Ian
Witten (who has co-authored much of the published
material).
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