Monthly Archives: September 2012

Lucy & Emily

The First Mellor CodeClub

So it happened!  We ran our very first CodeClub session on Monday 17th September.  Children actually turned up.  Children actually coded.

First things first, we got the badges sorted out.  I spent Friday evening making them according to strict CodeClub instructions.  They seemed to go down well.

 

Here are some quick thoughts about how it all went and what I learnt from doing it.

1. Children don’t just follow the project step by step to get it to look exactly like the one in the example.  That’s what I’d do.  Instead, they go by circuitous routes, stopping to explore and experiment.  (I’d probably do my experimenting at the end once I’d made sure I’d completed the assigned task and gained my pat on the back from teacher.  I’m SO old skool!)  So they didn’t want to call their cat Felix and their mouse Herbert.  They chose their own names.  And some chose a different background.  At first, I heard myself saying, “let’s all keep to the same script for now.”  But I couldn’t think of a good reason for sticking to the script so I chilled out and let them experiment and personalise.

I guess that’s what programming is all about – making the computer do what you want it to do instead of simply following instructions.  So that was my first lesson learnt!

2.  They are noisy!  Much noisier than we’d expected.  But when I think about it, all the noise was centred around the task in hand ie creating something on Scratch.
And amongst the noise you can hear words like “cool!” and “awesome!” when they can see what they’ve achieved and want to share that sense of accomplishment.  That was a lovely feeling.

3. We’re very lucky to have such enthusiastic, patient volunteers.  Maybe the children become more autonomous as they progress through CodeClub but for the time being, they do need quite a bit of support and they like to ask questions.  So the volunteers have to work pretty hard.

4. The children wouldn’t leave!   I kept telling them we’d come to the end of our time and they needed to save and log off but they just ignored me and carried on.  Then when their parents came in to collect them, they wanted to show off what they’d done.  So we might need a better plan for ending the session!  Setting the fire alarm off?

We’ve had some positive feedback already so I think they’ll come back again next week.
I’m looking forward to finding out if they’ve been playing with Scratch at home and what they’ve come up with.

I should add that we’re getting total support from the head teacher and his team at school which is why we’ve been able to get up and running so quickly with CodeClub.

But above all, I’m grateful to Clare Sutcliffe and Linda Sandvik, the two amazing women behind CodeClub.  Their hard work and vision has enabled me to turn a vague pipe dream into a reality – with very little effort on my part.  The CodeClub they’ve designed tells children that programming is not something they should be scared of or sneer at.  It’s fun, creative and can be learnt.
Degree level maths is hard.  But we don’t use that as an excuse not to teach Key Stage 1 children basic arithmetic.
Similarly, coding is hard at the upper levels.  But there is an entry point which enables children to understand the fundamentals.  Above and beyond that, it’s their choice how far they take it.  But without an entry point, they’ll always see it as scary and inaccessible.

CodeClub is a great place to start.

So what do I do with my Raspberry Pi Computer? Go to a RaspberryJam at Manchester’s MadLab 08.09.12.

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Photo by Muffet on Flickr – Creative Commons

This really tested my commitment to turning myself into a techy.

RaspberryJams are events taking place monthly all over the country (even globally) as a way of supporting and encouraging people to get the most out of their Raspberry Pis – those little credit-card sized computers which cost about £25.   I’ve had one for a few months now and it was still sat in its snug, foam box doing nothing because I just didn’t have the confidence to start tinkering.

So, I decided the only way I was going to start playing with it was to go along to a jam.

This was about as far out of my comfort zone as it was possible to get whilst still being in a breathable atmosphere.  The attendee list showed that I was the ONLY female signed up and I knew I was going to be the class dunce.

To drum up the courage to walk through the door of MadLab, I went across the road to the LOVELY Home Sweet Home cafe for an espresso.  The window seat on a sunny Saturday morning is a fantastic place to people watch as the Northern Quarter wakes up to the weekend.  I also like a cafe that tweets back!

So, were all my fears about RaspberryJam justified?

On the whole, absolutely not.  I was really impressed by how generous people were with their time and equipment to help me get started.  Even the keyboard I’d brought with me decided not to work properly (wouldn’t do S or T at all, pretty good at J.) so I had to borrow one of them, plus various cables.  I am extremely grateful to all of you, especially Dave who copied the operating system onto my SD card!

And as it turned out, I was NOT the only woman!  Hello, Dawn!

It was great to see lots of dad there with their 10, 11 yr old sons.  But where were the daughters?

I really liked the way the event was set up as a sharing experience.  Everyone was asked at the beginning what they wanted to get out of it and what they were able to put in (nothing, in my case).

So, what did I get out of the McrRaspJam?

  1. I finally found the motivation to take the Pi out of its box.  An important first step.
  2. Got the OS copied onto the SD card.  Thanks, Dave!
  3.  Got my Pi connected to a screen, mouse and keyboard and saw it spring to life.
  4. I borrowed an SD card with OPENelec’s XBoxMediaCentre so I got my Pi to play TV programmes from iPlayer onto a screen – which is something I definitely want to have a go at myself at home.   I want to be able to do it myself because I think that would give me a great sense of achievement but I’m worried I’ll get frustrated and just find somebody else to do it for me!  But the Jam has made me feel I could give it a go,  I know where to find the information and I could probably go to the next Jam and get some help if it all goes wrong (sorry to bug you, guys!!)
  5.  I started to make a shopping list of equipment I need.  This will end up costing more than the Pi
  6.  I met Simon Walters (@cymplecy).  He’s an ICT technician and network manager in primary schools but he also teaches children REAL computing.  He had a small gang of 11 yr old boys utterly absorbed in using Scratch to programme a tiny set of traffic lights.  Even better, he takes the time to blog about the stuff he’s doing with his RPis.

I have to admit, I left after a couple of hours because I felt I couldn’t absorb any more and I wanted to go away and digest what I’d learnt.  I may go back to the next one – if they’ll have me!  (I was definitely a taker rather than a giver)

But I’m pleased I didn’t stay in my window seat at Home Sweet Home.  That would have been too easy.

Journo-coders

A couple of months ago I wrote an article for Wannabehacks asking if it was time for journalism students to ditch short hand and learn to code instead.  I’m still keen to gather more responses (do take part in the survey below if you’re a student journalist or just starting out in journalism).  But in the meantime, here are a few follow-up thoughts and responses to questions people asked me.

cnorthwood left a comment on the article.  He’s a developer and is wondering if he should be doing more journalism (he’s already worked on some interesting-looking projects).  He raised a valid point about journalists learning to code:

It’s a very useful skill to have in their arsenal – making tools to help you do your job better, ability to analyse information in a new way (particularly large amounts of data coming available under the open data movement), but maybe the best way to do it is to team up with a developer and do it that way. It seems the way journalism is going is to make journos a jack of all trades – you’re now expected to have camera skills, editing skills, and lots of other things that would previously have been handled by specialists. Coding just seems another piece of that puzzle.

My response would be to say that some “trades” are in danger of becoming obsolete in newsrooms and are instead becoming “skills” that all journalists need to possess.  It’s an organic evolution.  A “jack-of-all-trades” is just a pejorative word for a multi skilled member of staff who’s a boon on any news team!  But I do agree that journalists – who understand a bit about what code does – working alongside developers is a good way to go.

One participant in my survey said they weren’t sure what programming could do for journalism.  A good way to answer that is to ask why would a programmer/developer want to work in a newsroom.  Daniel Sinker gives a great response to that question.  He leads the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project for Mozilla.  From 2008-2011 he taught in the journalism department at Columbia College Chicago where he focused on entrepreneurial journalism and the mobile web.  He’s recorded some really interesting video testimony from developers working in newsrooms in New York in the “news apps community” as one of the interviewees describes it.  You can see all six videos here but here are a couple of examples I’ve pulled out.

I got these from Knight-Mozilla Open News which organisers Fellowships (the deadline for 2013 has just ended) which:

embed developers and technologists in newsrooms around the world to spend a year writing code in collaboration with reporters, designers, and newsroom developers. Fellows work in the open by sharing their code and their discoveries on the web, helping to strengthen and build journalism’s toolbox.

So I think the news apps community sounds like a pretty exciting place to be and one which the current batch of student journalists AND computer scientists should really think about.

Chris Hutchinson got in touch after reading my article on Wannabehacks.  He’s a student journalist at Birmingham University and online editor for the student news site, Redbrick.  He seems a really good example of a new generation of journocoders – self-taught because he understood the way journalism was going and the way code could really connect stories to their communities.  So he wrote this follow-up article on his own blog which develops some of the points I made but, more impressively, he describes his own experience and insight as a genuine journalist who codes (I’m just an impostor, remember)

lolitician got in touch to say she’d have LOVED to do a journalism/comp sci degree had such a thing existed –

Perfect vocational combination of arts and science, and I would have rocked at it! Currently doing distance NCTJ and CodeYear.

Good luck!

I’m still interested in hearing from student journalists and wannabe hacks about this subject so please comment or tweet me.  And, if you haven’t already done so, please take part in the survey!

If you answered yes, please describe your level of knowledge and where you learnt to code.