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Sussex students work with local schools to boost computer skills

Students at the University of Sussex have been helping the next generation by teaching them useful computer programming skills, using computer games as inspiration.

The students worked with local secondary school pupils in developing learning resources and games that would help to teach them basic programming.

The partnership, which came about as a result of Lecturer of Informatics Dr Judith Good’s involvement with Digital Education Brighton, involved three Brighton schools and Sussex third year undergraduate and Masters students.

Digital Education Brighton is an organisation that aims to promote the use of digital technology in learning resources through small projects.

According to the group: “We work in new ways; we communicate in new ways; we socialise in new ways; we must educate in new ways”.

They said: “We believe that digital media will have a vital role in transforming education from a system designed for industrialisation to an environment appropriate to our 21st century information society, an environment where learning for all is collaborative, and fun, and happens throughout life, not just in the classroom.”

The project coincided with government calls to overhaul computer science teaching, with claims that there needs to be more of a focus on basic programming skills.

Such skills are seen to be vital for the modernisation of technology, and companies such as Google, Sony and Electronic Arts have been campaigning for an improvement as programming is a vital part of their trade.

Dr Good said: “We know from research and experience that programming is difficult – those that ‘get it’ really fly, but many students do badly and tend to drop out of their computer science courses. So there is the added problem of how to teach a difficult subject. And then there is the added problem of motivation. Programming is not often seen as a very attractive topic of study, particularly by females.”

In their involvement with secondary schools, the Sussex students discovered that teachers find classes of widely varying abilities to be a challenge – they wanted support to teach the most basic concepts to students finding the class difficult.

Other teachers wanted to cover a broader area, including how software developers create programmes that are easy and enjoyable to use.

The students then developed a number of learning resources to help in these areas. For example,  one resource allowed pupils to design a game in which players are responsible for getting aircraft to their destinations.  Adjustments needed to be made depending on things such as the number of passengers or the amount of fuel required, all of which was solved through basic programming.

Dr Good said: “It’s a win-win approach. My students are developing software and resources for existing languages and basic programming concepts that teachers can take away and use in class. And for the students it was a great learning experience as they got to work on a real-world, topical project.”

Darren Kelly, Curriculum Leader of ICT & Business Studies at Blatchington Mill School, said that he considered the collaboration to have been a great success.

Sebastian Long, involved in the project, said: “We’ve delivered a hands-on project, using a whole range of tools that show how to design programs that are easy to use, and fulfill the needs of the people using them.

“None of these key skills are covered by the existing curriculum, but we hope that they will play a bigger part in the future.”

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