Kissed by the Muse:
Promoting Computer Science Education for All
with the Calliope Board
Maria Grandl1, Martin Ebner1
1Graz University of Technology, Austria
A critical approach to new technologies requires a general understanding of the logical and technical aspects
behind them. In the German-speaking part of Europe, we experience, that computer science education in school
is still considered less important than other scientific subjects, especially in secondary and primary school. This
is particularly disadvantageous for girls, as they stick to gender stereotypes and social expectation and do not
opt for a male-dominated career path. To foster kids and teenagers’ interest in science, technology and
particularly in programming, we believe, that active encouragement in school and hands-on experience play a
vital role. Visual programming languages, age-appropriate development environments and educational robots or
boards like the Calliope mini allow an easy entry into this field. To impart coding skills and to practise
computational thinking, the Graz University of Technology offered workshops with the title “Coding with the
Calliope mini - a playful approach to the digital world”. The aim of the paper is to present the Calliope
initiative and to describe the importance of extracurricular offers to promote computer science education for
boys and for girls. The outcome of the study shows that the Calliope mini can boost programming activities and
attract students. Nevertheless, the results show, that it does not influence teenage girls’ decisions for their future
life and career, which correspond to gender stereotypes.
"School 4.0 - it's getting digital" - this is the title of the digitalisation strategy of the Austrian Ministry of
Education.1 Along the strategy, a new subject called “basic digital education” will be introduced in all Austrian
secondary schools in September 2018, in which students should work with algorithms, create simple programs
and use different programming languages in a creative way. Schools can decide independently on how this
subject is integrated into the schools’ curriculum. There is no need to allocate additional time slots for the
subject, as the content can also be integrated into other subjects in accordance with a cross-curricular approach.
As a result, computer science is still not a compulsory subject at Austrian secondary schools. In England, the
compulsory subject "computing" was introduced in 2014 at all state schools, starting from key stage 1 i.e.
primary school. Especially in the German-speaking countries, computer science as a school subject is still not as
important as other scientific subjects. (cf. Grandl & Ebner, 2017) Computer science lessons focus merely on
application competencies of information and communication technologies (ICT) and on typical digital literacy
than on basic concepts of computer science, like algorithmic thinking or programming. The approaches to
integrate basic computer science education into other subjects are inadequate and lead to the following fact:
"Not offering appropriate informatics education means that Europe is harming its new generation of citizens,
educationally and economically.” (Informatics Europe/ACM Europe, 2013)
In addition to increasing efforts at government level, there are a lot of extracurricular initiatives, organisations
and companies throughout Europe with a clear objective: To attract more young people to computer science, by
using age-appropriate software and hardware and to initiate changes in the schools’ curricular and organisation.
For example, the field of educational robotics is booming. As well as that, we observe that different educational
1 https://www.schule40.at/ (2018-04-06)
Originally published in: Grandl, M. & Ebner, M. (2018). Kissed by the Muse: Promoting Computer Science Education for All with
the Calliope Board. In Proceedings of EdMedia: World Conference on Educational Media and Technology (pp. 606-615).
Amsterdam, Netherlands: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).
institutions or associations establish maker spaces (cf. Schön et al, 2014), fabrication labs or computer science
labs and/or offer workshops for schools.
Offering no proper computer science lessons in school, especially at the primary and secondary school level, has
a particular impact on girls' interest in science-related subjects. The results of a study by Microsoft across 35
European countries show that "young European women become attracted to science, technology, engineering
and math between the ages of 11 and 12. But that interest then drops off significantly between 15 and 16, with
limited recovery." (Microsoft Corporation, 2017). Another study of the OECD states that "fewer than 1 in 3
engineering graduates and fewer than 1 in 5 computer science graduates are girls. This is likely because of
stereotypes and expectations, rather than performance differences in math and science. For example, at age 15
far fewer girls (4.7%) than boys (18%) - even among the top performers- reported that they expect to have a
career in engineering or computing." (OECD, 2018)
To change this, the girls’ personal environment, including
teachers and school, needs to foster interest and passion in STEM subjects as early as possible.
The Graz University of Technology offers extracurricular activities to promote basic computer science
education for kids and teenagers, for example workshops with the mobile app Pocket Code (cf. Janisch et al.,
2017), STEM-MOOCs (cf. Khalil & Ebner, 2015) or Makerdays for children (cf. Schön et al, 2016).
From November to December 2017, we offered three workshops with the title “Coding with the Calliope mini -
a playful approach to the digital world”. A total of 61 students aged 13 to 14 took part in the workshops. The
aim of this research study is to describe the goals of the German Calliope initiative, present the didactical design
of the workshops and discuss the results and experiences gained from observations and questionnaires, that were
filled out by the students afterwards. The chosen research design for this work is a field study with a final
evaluation done by the students. Furthermore, we gathered practical experiences by working with the Calliope
board in educational settings to improve further studies and to create proper learning and teaching materials.
As shown in figure 1, the Calliope mini is a star-shaped board with a microprocessor and other electronical and
mechanical components. However, it is not a computer that can be used autonomously, such as the Raspberry
Pi, that we used in another study. (cf. Müller, 2015) To program the Calliope mini, a computer, that is connected
to the internet, is required.
figure 1: Calliope mini – a programmable board with built-in sensors
Other boards like the BBC micro:bit
and the CodeBug
served as a model for the Calliope mini. The BBC
micro:bit was given to one million 7th grade students in England at the beginning of 2016 for free to promote
OECD (2018): “Where are tomorrow’s female scientists?”.
URL: https://www.oecd.org/gender/data/wherearetomorrowsfemalescientists.htm (2018-04-02)
computer science and maker education. (BBC, 2017)
From a technical point of view, the Calliope mini and the
BBC micro:bit do not differ significantly. In contrast to the BBC micro:bit, the Calliope mini has a built-in
loudspeaker, microphone and RGB-LED. While the production and distribution of the BBC micro:bit was
initiated by the BBC, the Calliope mini is supported by the German non-profit organization Calliope gGmbH.
According to the organisation, with the help of the Calliope mini, all “pupils from year 3 onwards” in Germany
should experience a playful access to the digital world. (Calliope gGmbH, 2018)
The initiative is also
supported by several companies and foundations, including Google, Microsoft, Bosch, SAP and the Deutsche
Telekom Stiftung. For that, the initiative is often criticised. Detractors argue, that the supporting companies
could exert influence on schools and pupils and subsequently change the school curriculum. But the goal of the
organisation is a German-wide distribution of the Calliope mini, whereby schools can apply to become a pilot
school. No one should be forced, to use or buy the board.
The Calliope mini is intended to promote the development of digital skills, especially ICT and coding skills,
starting at primary school. When it comes to digital competencies at European level, the DigComp framework
(European Digital Competence Framework for Citizens) serves as a guideline for the “development and
strategic planning of digital competence initiatives.” (JRC, 2017)
This includes five areas of competency:
"information and data literacy", "communication and collaboration", "digital content creation", "safety" and
"problem solving”. (ibid.) The corresponding Austrian model that addresses the competencies of pupils is called
digi.komp. (cf. Brandhofer, 2013) A lot of examples
show, that the right and age-appropriate use of boards, like
the Calliope mini, can support development of competencies in all these five areas. Since pupils need to be
prepared for the requirements of a digitalised working environment and need to use new technologies
confidently, the aim of the Calliope initiative is to ensure that these competencies find their way into the
school’s curricula and to strengthen the subject of computer science in school. Learners, as well as teachers,
should change their perspective: from being a user (without thinking) to being a critical developer, creator and
author. Because a critical approach to new technologies also requires a general understanding of the
technologies, logical and technical aspects behind them.
To impart coding skills and to practise computational thinking, three workshops with the title “Coding with the
Calliope mini - a playful approach to the digital world” were conducted from November to December 2017.
Each of the first two workshops lasted 4 hours and were held at the Graz University of Technology. The third
workshop lasted only 2 hours, which was not intended at the beginning, and was held directly at an Austrian
secondary school. In all three cases, the workshops took place in a computer lab, which was equipped with a
projector and desktop computers. In the first two workshops, some pupils had to work in pairs with one Calliope
board. The structure and didactical design of the workshops is shown in figure 2. The first questionnaire was
handed out at the beginning and a second questionnaire at the end of the workshop.
The didactical design does not guarantee, that successful learning takes place, as nobody can foresee a future
teaching situation in its dynamics. Basically, however, we tried to select age-appropriate tasks, devices and
software. With the Open Roberta Lab, an integrated visual development environment, pupils can quickly write
programs with the help of command bricks, which are categorized in command classes (e.g. action, sensors,
control or logic) of different colour. (see figure 3) To write a program with the web-based editor, users need a
computer or notebook that is connected to the internet.
BBC (2017): About Make It Digital. URL:
Calliope gGmbH (2018): Our Mission. URL: https://www.calliope.cc/en/idee/mission (2018-04-07)
Joint Research Centre of the European Commission (2017):
DigComp 2.1: The Digital Competence Framework for Citizens.
https://www.calliope.cc/en/projekte (2018-04-06), https://makecode.microbit.org/projects (2018-04-06)
figure 2: Didactical design of a 4-hour-workshop to promote coding and computational thinking with the Calliope board
only in the first 2 workshops
only in the first 2 workshops
Creating further programs together
First contact with the Calliope mini
Handing-out the Calliope board
TASK: Write down your expectation!
What do you suppose it is? What do you think you can do with it?
Computational Thinking Contest
3 tasks* to train computational thinking
TASK: Solve the tasks in teams of two or three!
You've got 15 minutes!
Having a closer look at the hardware
Identifying the mechanical and electronical components
Which Sensors can also be found on the smartphone?
Creating a “Hello World” program**
Download and Transmission of the program
Discussion of possible solutions
with the entire class
Creating a program with the help of a work sheet
Creating an individual program
either alone or in teams of two
Presentation of the programs and ideas
TASK: Show, how you programmed the Calliope mini
and describe your code!
*The tasks were chosen from the pool of tasks from Bebras, an “International Challenge on Informatics and
Computational Thinking” (http://www.bebras.org/)
Using the visual development environment OpenRobertaLab© from Fraunhofer (https://lab.open-roberta.org/)
To get to know the development environment and the functionality of the Calliope board, the following
programs were developed together, step by step, with the students:
figure 3: All the students were supposed to create the programs and with the help of the workshop instructor
so that the Calliope mini can be used as a dice .
In the next step, the participants were asked to write a program to check the conductivity of different materials.
As the Calliope mini can be integrated into an electric circuit, the students can check, whether the circuit is
closed or not. This can be done with the help of crocodile clips and a corresponding program. Therefore, a
worksheet was handed-out to assist the students in finding a possible solution and to document their findings.
The available teaching materials provide a lot of other ideas on how topics connected to electric circuits and
conductivity can be implemented with the Calliope mini, for example a Calliope piano.
Coding is one way to train and practise Computational Thinking, by which we understand the “thought
processes involved in formulating problems and their solutions so that the solutions are represented in a form
that can be effectively carried out by an information-processing agent”. (Wing, 2010) It is considered as an
essential skill set in the 21st century, that “everyone, not just computer scientists, would be eager to learn and
use.” (Wing, 2006) There is an international challenge in informatics and computational thinking, which is
organised by the initiative Bebras. A lot of countries around the world, including Austria and Germany,
organize an annual Bebras contest, that usually takes place in November. The aim of this contest is to help
pupils of different age groups to develop computational thinking, to boost interest in computer science, to think
about tricky tasks related to computer science and to disseminate basic concepts of computer science without the
*Screenshots of the OpenRobertaLab© editor, URL: https://lab.open-roberta.org/ (2018-04-06)
program that checks if the
Calliope mini is shaken
program that outputs a
random number (symbol), when
the Calliope mini is shaken
(shaking = rolling the dice)
Complete the program,
so that you can use the
Calliope mini as a dice!
actual use of a computer. For the workshops, three tasks of the last years’ contests were chosen, to introduce
basic programming concepts.
To find out more about the pupils’ experience and attitudes toward computer science, we asked them to fill out a
questionnaire at the beginning and at the end of the workshop. The following data was collected anonymously:
Age and gender, use of devices and apps, desired career and education paths, assessment of the importance of
ICT and coding skills, experience in programming, best and worst part of the workshop, evaluation of the
Calliope board, willingness to pursue coding skills, rating of programming activities, evaluation of the
61 students from two different schools took part in the workshops. In all cases, the teachers were responsible for
the registration. Therefore, the entire class was invited to participate in the workshop. The number of girls and
boys, who took part in the workshops is shown in table 1. The average age of the participants was 13.38 years.
number of boys
number of girls
table 1: Gender distribution in the workshops
We asked the teenagers, which technical devices (smartphone, tablet, notebook or desktop computer) they use.
All students stated, that they use a smartphone, which is along with other studies. (cf. Grimus & Ebner, 2014)
Only 3 out of 61 students indicated, that they do not use a notebook or a desktop computer. Consequently, it can
be assumed that most of the participants were familiar with the use of a computer and its operating system.
Concerning mobile applications, the answers confirmed the dominance of Instagram (17 students), WhatsApp
(15 students) and Snapchat (10 students). These apps were listed as “favourite apps”.
The desired career path, mentioned by the boys and girls, differ significantly. The job description “computer
scientist” was only mentioned by boys. Only 2 girls said, that they would like to work in a male-dominated
profession and want to become an “officer” or a “police woman”. The boys’ desired careers correspond with the
social opinion and gender stereotypes – except for one, who said, that he wants to become a “kindergarten
teacher”. The 14 girls, who took part in the third workshop, said, that they already had experience in coding, as
they programmed the educational robot Ozobot during computer science lessons. Unfortunately, none of the
girls stated that they would like to work in a technical occupational area or to follow a related educational path.
The Microsoft report with the title “Why Europe’s girls aren’t studying STEM” highlights the problem as well:
“Conformity to social expectations, gender stereotypes, gender roles and lack of role models continue to
channel girls’ career choices away from STEM fields.”. (Microsoft Corporation, 2017) Regarding the further
educational paths, the teenagers’ choices are also strongly influenced by the school’s location.
The gender imbalance in the career choices does not correlate to the pupils’ opinion on the general importance
of ICT application and coding skills. As shown in figure 4, on average, ICT skills were generally classified as
very important or important. ICT skills were also considered more important by the boys. With an average
assessment of 2.81 (with the same rating scale as shown in figure 4), coding skills, in general, are considered
less important than ICT application skills (1.61).
The teenagers were also asked to assess their own competencies concerning the use of computers from very
good (1) to not good at all (5). The male participants rated their skills as good with an average rating of 2.36,
which is more optimistic than the female participants’ perception with an average value of 2.71.
There were no gender-specific differences in programming experience. The experience differs from group to
group. It seems that the group, who participated in workshop 1, already created programs with the visual
programming language Scratch in school. More than half of the participants of the second workshop stated, that
they did not have any experience in programming.
figure 4: We asked the participants to rate on a scale from very important (1) to not at all important (5):
How important, do you think, is the ability to use computers confidently?
Some of them used the programming languages Scratch and Python or worked with the robots of Lego
Mindstorms, possibly at home. As already mentioned, the (mostly female) participants of workshop 3 had
experience in working with programmable robots. Compared to group 1 and 2, group 3 rated coding skills as
less important. In summary, most of the participants gained first experiences with programming even before the
workshop – either in school or at home.
Most of the teenagers haven’t heard about the Calliope mini before. Some identified the star-like object as a
"programmable board", "mini computer" or a "robot" or assumed, that "it can be programmed". The teenagers
liked working with the Calliope board. With an average rating of 1.59 (very good (1) to good (2)) it can be
concluded, that the Calliope mini is an age-appropriate device for teenagers aged 13 or 14. On average, the girls
were even a little bit more attracted by the board than the boys.
As shown in figure 5, the male and female participants were satisfied with the content, structure and
organisation of the workshop. In workshop 1 and 3, the boys’ average evaluation was slightly better (lower) than
the girls’ grading.
figure 5: We asked the participants to evaluate the entire workshop on a scale from
very good (1) to in great need of improvement (5).
In workshops 1 and 2, the participants had the opportunity to write their own program, either alone or in teams
of two or three. The teenagers worked with passion on their own projects in a playful and explorative way
together with their classmates. The majority stated, that this was the best part of the workshop. Since we only
had 2 hours for the third workshop, there was less time to explore and work with the Calliope board
individually. This was also criticized by the pupils and influenced the evaluation of the workshop. The
following critical points were mentioned in a few cases: “too easy programming tasks”, “tasks of the Bebras
contest”, “not enough breaks”, “presentation of the programs at the end of the workshop”.
The students created a lot of different programs and used basic programming concepts like conditionals and
loops. Some of them created their individual rock-paper-scissor game, others experimented with the LED
display and the RGB led and created animations or some kind of disco light. Some teenagers tried to build a
chatbot by asking questions (over the LED display) and responding to users’ answers i.e. input events. Others
extended the program for testing the conductivity of different materials and built a “hot wire game” with copper
tap, a cardboard and crocodile clips, as shown in figures 6 and 7:
To find out more about the impact of the workshops on the students' interest, we asked them if they would
attend a programming course, in the afternoon or at the weekend for example. 44 out of 61 pupils said, that they
would (rather) do so. On average, however, the boys feel slightly more attracted by such offers. 45 out of 61
teenagers would (rather) use the Calliope mini for personal purposes outside school. With an average rating of
2.58 (rating scale: 1 (I agree) - 4 (I disagree)), male participants would more likely choose an educational path
connected to programming and ICT than female participants (3.01). 19 teenagers, including 2 girls, could
imagine themselves to become a software developer. However, most of the students seem to be interested in
other professions. Nevertheless, they think of programming as a creative process. They are aware that coding
skills are quite important now and in the future. With an average value of 1.70 (rating scale: 1 (I agree) - 4 (I
disagree)), the participants said, that they liked programming (with the Calliope mini).
Discussion and Conclusion
To foster kids and teenagers’ interest in science, technology and particularly in programming, we believe, that
active encouragement in school and hands-on experience plays a significant role. This is supported by the
evaluation of the workshops.
Visual programming languages, age-appropriate development environments and educational robots or boards
like the Calliope mini allow an easy entry into this field. Non-profit organizations such as Code.org
, which has
supported various projects since 2013 to promote computer science education worldwide, provide age-
figure 6: Some participants created
a “hot wire game”.
figure 7: One of the workshop’s products!
The Calliope mini checks whether the copper tap has been touched
appropriate teaching and learning materials that can be used in computer science lessons with respect to the
needs of girls and under-represented minorities.
We know that there is a “four-year-window of opportunity to foster girls’ passion in STEM subjects in Europe”,
namely from 11 to 15. (Microsoft Corporation, 2017) Since girls and boys in the German-speaking part of
Europe do often not experience computer science lessons in secondary school (or primary school), initiatives
like those of the non-profit organisation Calliope have their eligibility or are even necessary. Numerous
examples, which can be found on the Calliope website
show that the Calliope mini can be used in different
school subjects to teach basic programming concepts together with subject-related content. As a university of
technology, we benefit from technically skilled first semester students and a gender balance. But we have to do
something about it, too. Therefore, we try to identify, how we can inspire more young people, especially girls, to
look behind the software and hardware they use day by day. Offering coding workshops for schools on a regular
basis is one possible way of contribution. In this context, we found out that a 4-hour workshop is often not
feasible due to inflexible and strict lesson plans. However, it is essential to give children enough space and time
to work and learn. From a didactical point of view, an open teaching environment, that enables project-based
learning in teams and provides time and space for experiments, is the most effective. Environments like these
are particularly suitable for making activities. According to Rodriguez et al. (2018), making is defined as “an
iterative process of design and fabrication that draws on a do-it-yourself (DIY) mindset”. The Calliope mini is a
proper making tool to turn creative “ideas into products through design, invention, and building”. (ibid.)
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