Stimulating intellectual curiosity

If a teacher lacks ability or confidence in delivering computing, the subject can come across dry. But using code to control another object, such as a robot, the subject can be brought to life. Phil Spencer, senior lecturer from the Sheffield Institute of Education, explains how to put this into practice

The advent of the new national curriculum for computing caused considerable concern amongst school teachers used to delivering ICT rather than computing.

The skills and subject knowledge were obviously going to be an issue and although bodies like Computing in Schools and the BCS were and remain keen to promote computing in schools, the reality of learning a new subject, with its different pedagogical delivery style has made this transition a difficult one for most schools to embrace.

Restrictive training budgets and the pressure of time has made it difficult for existing teachers to retrain to take on board the new skills to deliver complex courses. The only option for some teachers is to give their own time in the evenings and weekends to seek help and training.

Recruitment and training of new computer training is woefully behind demand, impacting on the ability of schools to deliver the new curriculum.

Subsequently, training and support has been frequently on a good will basis. Universities are keen to support schools in the development of computing, especially where it will enable strong bonds to be formed enabling students to see a progression route into studying computing in one of its various guises within its institutions.

Schools that have taken advantage of this have seen a positive impact within their classes, those who have not engaged may have found this transition more difficult, or may have avoided it totally.


Computer programming continues to be seen as a difficult skill for both students and teachers to master. The lack of subject knowledge of many teachers when it comes to programming can often lead to a lack of confidence when teaching students.

Many teachers withdraw into the safety of pre-made worksheets or directing students to the internet for support thus hiding from their own limitations whilst claiming to promote independence without giving the skills to the students to be independent.

However, as we all know, this is not teaching, its a cover for the poor subject knowledge of the teacher, handing the responsibility for teaching over to the students themselves, which means that very few students can make effective progress.

This is not to say that we don’t want the independence of our students, we do; its a hugely important skill for computer programmers to develop.

Our role as educators must be to get the key skills over to the students, to give them the confidence to both fail and achieve in equal measure which will give them the confidence to then move towards the discovery learning cycle. This is where the use of robotics in the classroom to aid programming has proved to be very beneficial.


The delivery of computing can be dry for a number of reasons. The fact that the language may be difficult to access may be a stumbling block.

The confidence of the teacher in the delivery of a new topic may result in lessons being more copy the code down rather than getting the students to actually understand what they are doing it and letting them apply it to a scenario. The result can therefore be that a programme may work, but neither the teacher nor the student knows why.

Copying of code does not result in the ability to code, just the ability to copy. The issue is therefore how to raise the confidence and ability of the teacher combined with the stimulation of a student’s intellectual curiosity.

An effective way to achieve this is via a more dynamic approach to programming, using the code to control another object, in this case a robot. For the sake of the outreach sessions done with university partner schools, the sessions have been conducted using Pololu 3Pi robots programmed using C.

The assumption is that, when we arrive at the school, the students who are participants in the session will have been selected by the teachers and will have had some basic experience of programming, be it using Scratch, Small Basic, or in some instances, Python.

In terms of delivery, it tends to be mainly hands on, but built up from the bottom in terms of the programming skills. In order for students to complete the final task, the students will have to understand how to control the motors, to get the robot to accelerate and decelerate and to turn.

But to get there, the students have to master sequence, selection and repetition as well as engage in a considerable amount of discovery learning.

The most important aspect of the sessions is that the students can see the direct impact of their programming on the robot, a huge motivational factor. The students also work in paired teams which again has a successful motivational aspect.


The software skills are demonstrated to the students in a traditional learning cycle of demonstration, with the gap between the demonstrations getting wider as the students confidence grows and the tasks increase in complexity.

Once the students have all the skills they need to complete the tasks, they are then given their first scenario, a drag race where the robot has to travel a few meters, turn and return over the finish line, and the first one over the line stays on.

This sounds fairly straight forward, but the students soon realise that there are a range of other factors which impact on their robots, such as the fact that the motors, being man made, tend to not operate at exactly the same speed causing robots to go of course.

Speed and acceleration are also impacted on by the floor that are operating on. As they have no direct control over distance in terms of a direct instruction to the robot, the students have to work out distance via the combination of speed and time.

Discovery learning and the competitive element are therefore at the heart of this activity. The second activity is a repeat of the first, with the added complication of students having to programme a robot to carry a marble on top of the robots batteries. This added factor means that the students have to work out how to accelerate and decelerate without losing the marble.


But what of the long term impact of these and similar activities on the take-up of computing at GCSE and A level in schools? Overall, the impact of participation by schools in university lead robotics sessions has been positive.

This is further boosted if schools also participate in activities such as the Lego Challenge and Games Britannia. Data from one Derbyshire School (Lady Manners in Derbyshire) illustrated this impact, especially with the long standing issue of girls taking up computing.

Over the past three years intake to GCSE there has been a considerable increase in uptake and girls now make up 30 per cent of the cohort in GCSE and 40 per cent at A level. Paul Sloane, the head of department at Lady Manners made some interesting observations about the impact of the sessions

He believes that the robotics sessions had a greater impact on the girls than the boys. The boys consider themselves to be good at the subject and will take computer science regardless of any available evidence. The girls need more encouragement to see that they have an ability with computer science.

The robotics sessions, particularly the single sex ones, helped the girl’s confidence. Being selected to go to the robotics sessions, especially if held at the university, convinced a number of them that they must be good at the subject. This is further compounded by their positive experience in the university, especially as they were also with their friends.


An interesting aside to the gender issue in the robotics session is that no matter which age group and what gender split there is within the group, the girls, once their confidence is established, nearly always win the competitions and usually come up with effective solutions first giving them time to refine and fine tune.

Another interesting observation revolves around student success in this activity. Many schools chose to send high achieving students to these events believing that they will benefit from it and be able to engage easily with the tasks. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that this may not always be the case. These students are used to getting things right first time and frequently with little effort.

However, in a new environment, with a new subject, it’s the students who have the resilience who frequently shine – those students who are used to working through problems to a successful conclusion having first got things wrong, those who are willing to use discovery learning when they have secured the facts.

If the student is used to getting things right all the time, getting it wrong can prove a significant turn off. Maybe we need to rethink how we teach computing and how we identify students who may be better than we first thought.

Phil Spencer is a senior lecturer and course leader for the PGCE Computing Course at Sheffield Hallam University. He is actively involved in the promotion of computing as a subject in schools as well as providing support for existing teachers new to the topic.

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