An interview with Tranmere Park Primary

As part of our ongoing initiative to support electronics in Education, we recently provided a number of UK primary schools with Codebug development boards. We sat down with Dan Beech, ICT Coordinator at Tranmere Park Primary School, Leeds, to find out how these devices have helped his students to engage with coding and computing skills.

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"Initially, I think the changes in the national computing curriculum were quite terrifying. They were completely different to what we’ve taught before."

Read the full interview below.

How do you feel about the recent changes to the National Computing Curriculum?

Initially, I think they were quite terrifying, that's the short word to use for it. They were completely different to what we’ve taught before. However, the more we've looked into it the more I’ve started to feel quite excited about the new curriculum. It’s a real opportunity to take a look at how we’ve been teaching computing in the past and to develop some really useful skills for the future. It’s still a little bit scary, but we’re getting there!

How had you been coping with the changes to the curriculum before you tried Codebug?

When the curriculum was changed, our first step was to expand what we were already doing – we used to do a lot of control work using switches and sensors in our science classes, and we had some bits of software that enabled us to play with those and look at things like loops and circuits. Then we started looking at scratch and coding using blocks to try to move sprites and objects onscreen. We did a lot of animation by writing code, making simple point and click games on the computer etc. But particularly lower down the school - in year 3 and below - we found it a real challenge because the children needed to acquire a lot of new skills before they could really engage with it.

Have you had any kind of formal training in teaching coding/programming? If so, what did it involve and was it adequate in your opinion?

I took a day long one-to-one master class in Leeds that was focused on building up my own coding skills. While it was a valuable experience, what was lacking was the training on how to actually teach coding, which is quite a different skill than simply learning how to code yourself. The teaching of coding is something I have not had a huge amount of formal training with, so it’s been quite difficult. This was something we’ve had to figure out as we go along. Learning how to code was something I did under my own initiative; I did some research, found some people who offered training in basic coding and this was booked and paid for out of the school budget, it wasn’t offered by the government.

How has Codebug helped you to teach programming? How did it fit in with the updated curriculum?

It’s been quite a good fit with the new curriculum. The Codebug language is similar but not identical to what we’ve been doing with Scratch, which makes it ideal for teaching the children about adapting to different systems and software packages, applying learned skills and debugging, which is stipulated in the curriculum for Key Stage 2.

Beforehand, the kids were getting a little bit too comfortable with Scratch and they weren’t making a lot of mistakes, whereas by introducing a second language like Codebug’s, there’s more focus on trying things out and learning through trial and error.

The most important thing about using devices like Codebug is that it shows children that coding is about more than just making something happen on a computer screen. All the devices they use on a daily basis had to be coded by somebody, and Codebug can help them to learn about fundamentals such as how buttons are programmed, how screens work and how LEDs can be made to light up as a matrix. Beforehand, I don’t think they particularly had a sense of the real-world possibilities of what they were learning.

Tranmere Park Primary - Codebug interview

What kind of age range have you trialled Codebug with?

At the moment I’m piloting it with my year four class (age 8-9) and they’ve taken to it really well, with no problems getting their heads around how it works. I think we’d certainly be able to look at it for year 3 pupils, but only later in the year once they have more experience with the basic concepts of coding and programming – and we might be tempted to keep it back as a point of progression as they move into year 4.

I’d definitely have no problem introducing it to my students in years five, six and above as by that point I feel they’d be able to pick it up quite quickly. We have trialled peer teaching methods in the past, in which we ask our older children to work with younger classes. That’s certainly something we could look at in terms of getting our year six pupils to engage with it.

Tell us about the projects you have performed in class with Codebug. How did the pupils react to them?

The projects started with short, simple programs involving scrolling messages on the LED display. That really helped us to gain their interest, because the LED matrix is often used as the output of other code as well. We’ve built on that by looking at a conductivity tester and mood badges to show moods by scrolling through buttons.

Every time we’ve done something new, there’s been a struggle at first to understand what they need to do, but there’s always that “light bulb moment” when they realise that it really works. It’s really engaged every child in my class, regardless of ability. They’ve all really enjoyed it and derived real satisfaction through learning from their mistakes.

"The teaching of coding is something I have not had a huge amount of formal training with, so it’s been quite difficult. This was something we’ve had to figure out as we go along. Building my own coding skills was something I did under my own initiative; it wasn’t offered by the government."

How practical is Codebug in the school environment? Was it easy to set up?

It’s very good from a hardware point of view because it just uses USB, which all of our computers have. There was no software to install per se; it just runs through the browser.

One thing we did struggle with a little was that our school network was set up so the C drive is inaccessible to the children, and this caused some problems in terms of finding the code they’d created and moving it onto the Codebug. Fortunately, I’m in control of the network at Tranmere, so I was able to redirect the download location to a central network folder that the pupils could get into.

I would advise other teachers to take things like this into account, because different school networks will be set up in different ways, particularly when it comes to accessing data from USB drives.

How do you feel about the price point for the Codebug?

I think at £12.50 it’s very reasonable for what you get. At that price point you get access to all the projects we’ve worked on so far, all of which only require the Codebug itself and a handful of ancillary components such as wires and crocodile clips.

What projects would you like to undertake with the Codebug in the future?

I’m quite excited to start integrating Codebug into other projects we do in school, and also identify a smaller group of children who might be ready to push things a bit further by moving on to projects that integrate with Raspberry Pi.

I’d also like to go off-piste a bit and ask the children themselves to come up with ideas for future projects. At that age, they have far more imagination than I do, so it’s great fun seeing what kind of things they come up with.

Do you have any other feedback about the device itself?

They seem quite robust – none of the children has managed to break one of them yet, which is impressive as they’ve managed to break everything else we’ve ever worked with!

If I was to make a suggestion, I’d say that developing cables that clip onto the leg circles would be handy. I have a feeling that the crocodile clips will wear out the legs eventually, though it hasn’t been an issue yet.

"The most important thing about using devices like Codebug is that it shows children that coding is about more than just making something happen on a computer screen. All the devices they use on a daily basis had to be coded by somebody... Beforehand, I don’t think they particularly had a sense of the real-world possibilities of what they were learning."

How does Codebug help pupils to develop broader skills beyond Coding?

The key skill it promotes is problem solving. Whenever we do anything with coding, there’s a problem – some I’ve foreseen, some I haven’t. The ability to react to an issue independently, through trial and error, is a really important life skill.

Due to a shortage of computers at our school, they’ve also had to share the devices, which has encouraged them to work in groups and develop their teamwork skills.

"None of the children has managed to break one of them yet, which is impressive as they’ve managed to break everything else we’ve ever worked with!"

Have the Codebugs helped the children to become more engaged with ICT and computing?

Definitely. Several of the children have already asked if they can take the devices home – unfortunately I had to say no! But many of them are still really keen to experiment with writing code at home and then trying it out on the Codebugs in class, which is a great sign that they’re engaged and likely to continue their learning.

The physical aspect is a real motivating factor too. When something doesn’t work on a computer screen, they tend to disengage and look for something else to play. With Codebug, if something isn’t working right away they’re much more likely to try to fix it.

What effect do you think Codebug has had on your children? Do you think you could have the next Mark Zuckerberg in your class?

Quite possibly! There are a couple of children, a boy and a girl in particular, who are electrified by the things we’ve been doing and they’ve really gotten into writing bits of code for themselves. There’s one boy whose father works as a web developer – he’d never really spoken to his dad about his job before, and now they’re trying things out together at home. The feedback I’ve had is that the father is quite impressed with what we’re doing in terms of how advanced it is for their age group, so I definitely feel like he’s an example of somebody who’s been inspired by this initiative.