Tag Archives: research

The AI4K12 project: Big ideas for AI education

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What is AI thinking? What concepts should we introduce to young people related to AI, including machine learning (ML), and data science? Should we teach with a glass-box or an opaque-box approach? These are the questions we’ve been grappling with since we started our online research seminar series on AI education at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, co-hosted with The Alan Turing Institute.

Over the past few months, we’d already heard from researchers from the UK, Germany, and Finland. This month we virtually travelled to the USA, to hear from Prof. Dave Touretzky (Carnegie Mellon University) and Prof. Fred G. Martin (University of Massachusetts Lowell), who have pioneered the influential AI4K12 project together with their colleagues Deborah Seehorn and Christina Gardner-McLure.

The AI4K12 project

The AI4K12 project focuses on teaching AI in K-12 in the US. The AI4K12 team have aligned their vision for AI education to the CSTA standards for computer science education. These Standards, published in 2017, describe what should be taught in US schools across the discipline of computer science, but they say very little about AI. This was the stimulus for starting the AI4K12 initiative in 2018. A number of members of the AI4K12 working group are practitioners in the classroom who’ve made a huge contribution in taking this project from ideas into the classroom.

Dave Touretzky presents the five big ideas of the AI4K12 project at our online research seminar.
Dave gave us an overview of the AI4K12 project (click to enlarge)

The project has a number of goals. One is to develop a curated resource directory for K-12 teachers, and another to create a community of K-12 resource developers. On the AI4K12.org website, you can find links to many resources and sign up for their mailing list. I’ve been subscribed to this list for a while now, and fascinating discussions and resources have been shared. 

Five Big Ideas of AI4K12

If you’ve heard of AI4K12 before, it’s probably because of the Five Big Ideas the team has set out to encompass the AI field from the perspective of school-aged children. These ideas are: 

  1. Perception — the idea that computers perceive the world through sensing
  2. Representation and reasoning — the idea that agents maintain representations of the world and use them for reasoning
  3. Learning — the idea that computers can learn from data
  4. Natural interaction — the idea that intelligent agents require many types of knowledge to interact naturally with humans
  5. Societal impact — the idea that artificial intelligence can impact society in both positive and negative ways

Sometimes we hear concerns that resources being developed to teach AI concepts to young people are narrowly focused on machine learning, particularly supervised learning for classification. It’s clear from the AI4K12 Five Big Ideas that the team’s definition of the AI field encompasses much more than one area of ML. Despite being developed for a US audience, I believe the description laid out in these five ideas is immensely useful to all educators, researchers, and policymakers around the world who are interested in AI education.

Fred Martin presents one of the five big ideas of the AI4K12 project at our online research seminar.
Fred explained how ‘representation and reasoning’ is a big idea in the AI field (click to enlarge)

During the seminar, Dave and Fred shared some great practical examples. Fred explained how the big ideas translate into learning outcomes at each of the four age groups (ages 5–8, 9–11, 12–14, 15–18). You can find out more about their examples in their presentation slides or the seminar recording (see below). 

I was struck by how much the AI4K12 team has thought about progression — what you learn when, and in which sequence — which we do really need to understand well before we can start to teach AI in any formal way. For example, looking at how we might teach visual perception to young people, children might start when very young by using a tool such as Teachable Machine to understand that they can teach a computer to recognise what they want it to see, then move on to building an application using Scratch plugins or Calypso, and then to learning the different levels of visual structure and understanding the abstraction pipeline — the hierarchy of increasingly abstract things. Talking about visual perception, Fred used the example of self-driving cars and how they represent images.

A diagram of the levels of visual structure.
Fred used this slide to describe how young people might learn abstracted elements of visual structure

AI education with an age-appropriate, glass-box approach

Dave and Fred support teaching AI to children using a glass-box approach. By ‘glass-box approach’ we mean that we should give students information about how AI systems work, and show the inner workings, so to speak. The opposite would be a ‘opaque-box approach’, by which we mean showing students an AI system’s inputs and the outputs only to demonstrate what AI is capable of, without trying to teach any technical detail.

AI4K12 advice for educators supporting K-12 students: 1. Use transparent AI demonstrations. 2. Help students build mental models. 3. Encourage students to build AI applications.
AI4K12 teacher guidelines for AI education

Our speakers are keen for learners to understand, at an age-appropriate level, what is going on “inside” an AI system, not just what the system can do. They believe it’s important for young people to build mental models of how AI systems work, and that when the young people get older, they should be able to use their increasing knowledge and skills to develop their own AI applications. This aligns with the views of some of our previous seminar speakers, including Finnish researchers Matti Tedre and Henriikka Vartiainen, who presented at our seminar series in November

What is AI thinking?

Dave addressed the question of what AI thinking looks like in school. His approach was to start with computational thinking (he used the example of the Barefoot project’s description of computational thinking as a starting point) and describe AI thinking as an extension that includes the following skills:

  • Perception 
  • Reasoning
  • Representation
  • Machine learning
  • Language understanding
  • Autonomous robots

Dave described AI thinking as furthering the ideas of abstraction and algorithmic thinking commonly associated with computational thinking, stating that in the case of AI, computation actually is thinking. My own view is that to fully define AI thinking, we need to dig a bit deeper into, for example, what is involved in developing an understanding of perception and representation.

An image demonstrating that AI systems for object recognition may not distinguish between a real banana on a desk and the photo of a banana on a laptop screen.
Image: Max Gruber / Better Images of AI / Ceci n’est pas une banane / CC-BY 4.0

Thinking back to Matti Tedre and Henriikka Vartainen’s description of CT 2.0, which focuses only on the ‘Learning’ aspect of the AI4K12 Five Big Ideas, and on the distinct ways of thinking underlying data-driven programming and traditional programming, we can see some differences between how the two groups of researchers describe the thinking skills young people need in order to understand and develop AI systems. Tedre and Vartainen are working on a more finely granular description of ML thinking, which has the potential to impact the way we teach ML in school.

There is also another description of AI thinking. Back in 2020, Juan David Rodríguez García presented his system LearningML at one of our seminars. Juan David drew on a paper by Brummelen, Shen, and Patton, who extended Brennan and Resnick’s CT framework of concepts, practices, and perspectives, to include concepts such as classification, prediction, and generation, together with practices such as training, validating, and testing.

What I take from this is that there is much still to research and discuss in this area! It’s a real privilege to be able to hear from experts in the field and compare and contrast different standpoints and views.

Resources for AI education

The AI4K12 project has already made a massive contribution to the field of AI education, and we were delighted to hear that Dave, Fred, and their colleagues have just been awarded the AAAI/EAAI Outstanding Educator Award for 2022 for AI4K12.org. An amazing achievement! Particularly useful about this website is that it links to many resources, and that the Five Big Ideas give a framework for these resources.

Through our seminars series, we are developing our own list of AI education resources shared by seminar speakers or attendees, or developed by us. Please do take a look.

Join our next seminar

Through these seminars, we’re learning a lot about AI education and what it might look like in school, and we’re having great discussions during the Q&A section.

On Tues 1 February at 17:00–18:30 GMT, we’ll hear from Tara Chklovski, who will talk about AI education in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals. To participate, click the button below to sign up, and we will send you information about joining. I really hope you’ll be there for this seminar!

The schedule of our upcoming seminars is online. You can also (re)visit past seminars and recordings on the blog.

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How can AI-based analysis help educators support students?

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We are hosting a series of free research seminars about how to teach artificial intelligence (AI) and data science to young people, in partnership with The Alan Turing Institute.

In the fifth seminar of this series, we heard from Rose Luckin, Professor of Learner Centred Design at the University College London (UCL) Knowledge Lab. Rose is Founder of EDUCATE Ventures Research Ltd., a London consultancy service working with start-ups, researchers, and educators to develop evidence-based educational technology.

Rose Luckin.
Rose Luckin, UCL

Based on her experience at EDUCATE, Rose spoke about how AI-based analysis could help educators gain a deeper understanding of their students, and how educators could work with AI systems to provide better learning resources to their students. This provided us with a different angle to the first four seminars in our current series, where we’ve been thinking about how young people learn to understand AI systems.

Rose Luckin's definition of AI: technology capable of actions and behaviours "requiring intelligence when done by humans".
Rose’s definition of artificial intelligence for this presentation.

Education and AI systems

AI systems have the potential to impact education in a number of different ways, which Rose distilled into three areas: 

  1. Using AI in education to tackle some of the big educational challenges
  2. Educating teachers about AI so that they can use it safely and effectively 
  3. Changing education so that we focus on human intelligence and prepare people for an AI world

It is clear that the three areas are interconnected, meaning developments in one area will affect the others. Rose’s focus during the seminar was the second area: educating people about AI.

Rose Luckin's definition of the three intersections of education and artificial intelligence, see text in list above.

What can AI systems do in education? 

Through giving examples of existing AI-based systems used for education, Rose described what in particular it is about AI systems that can be useful in an education setting. The first point she raised was that AI systems can adapt based on learning from data. Her main example was the AI-based platform ENSKILLS, which detects the user’s level of competency with spoken English through the user’s interactions with a virtual character, and gradually adapts the character to the user’s level. Other examples of adaptive AI systems for education include Carnegie Learning and Century Intelligent Learning.

We know that AI systems can respond to different forms of data. Rose introduced the example of OyaLabs to demonstrate how AI systems can gather and process real-time sensory data. This is an app that parents can use in a young child’s room to monitor the child’s interactions with others. The app analyses the data it gathers and produces advice for parents on how they can support their child’s language development.

AI system creators can also combine adaptivity and real-time sensory data processing  in their systems. One example Rosa gave of this was SimSensei from the University of Southern California. This is a simulated coach, which a student can interact with and which gathers real-time data about how the student is speaking, including their tone, speed of speech, and facial expressions. The system adapts its coaching advice based on these interactions and on what it learns from interactions with other students.

Getting ready for AI systems in education

For the remainder of her presentation, Rose focused on the framework she is involved in developing, as part of the EDUCATE service, to support organisations to prepare for implementing AI systems, including educators within these organisations. The aim of this ETHICAI framework is to enable organisations and educators to understand:

  • What AI systems are capable of doing
  • The strengths and weaknesses of AI systems
  • How data is used by AI systems to learn
The EDUCATE consultancy service's seven-part AI readiness framework, see test below for list.

Rose described the seven steps of the framework as:

  1. Educate, enthuse, excite – about building an AI mindset within your community 
  2. Tailor and Hone – the particular challenges you want to focus on
  3. Identify – identify (wisely), collate and …
  4. Collect – new data relevant to your focus
  5. Apply – AI techniques to the relevant data you have brought together
  6. Learn – understand what the data is telling you about your focus and return to step 5 until you are AI ready
  7. Iterate

She then went on to demonstrate how the framework is applied using the example of online teaching. Online teaching has been a key part of education throughout the coronavirus pandemic; AI systems could be used to analyse datasets generated during online teaching sessions, in order to make decisions for and recommendations to educators.

The first step of the ETHICAI framework is educate, enthuse, excite. In Rose’s example, this step consisted of choosing online teaching as a scenario, because it is very pertinent to a teacher’s practice. The second step is to tailor and hone in on particular challenges that are to be the focus, capitalising on what AI systems can do. In Rose’s example, the challenge is assessing the quality of online lessons in a way that would be useful to educators. The third step of the framework is to identify what data is required to perform this quality assessment.

Examples of data to be fed into an AI system for education, see text.

The fourth step is the collection of new data relevant to the focus of the project. The aim is to gain an increased understanding of what happens in online learning across thousands of schools. Walking through the online learning example, Rose suggested we might be able to collect the following types of data:

  • Log data
  • Audio data
  • Performance data
  • Video data, which includes eye-movement data
  • Historical data from tests and interviews
  • Behavioural data from surveying teachers and parents about how they felt about online learning

It is important to consider the ethical implications of gathering all this data about students, something that was a recurrent theme in both Rose’s presentation and the Q&A at the end.

Step five of the ETHICAI framework focuses on applying AI techniques to the relevant data to combine and process it. The figure below shows that in preparation, the various data sets need to be collated, cleaned, organised, and transformed.

Presentation slide showing that data for an AI system needs to be collated, cleaned, organised, and transformed.

From the correctly prepared data, interaction profiles can be produced in order to put characteristics from different lessons into groups/profiles. Rose described how cluster analysis using a combination of both AI and human intelligence could be used to sort lessons into groups based on common features.

The sixth step in Rose’s example focused on what may be learned from analysing collected data linked to the particular challenge of online teaching and learning. Rose said that applying an AI system to students’ behavioural data could, for example, give indications about students’ focus and confidence, and make or recommend interventions to educators accordingly.

Presentation slide showing example graphs of results produced by an AI system in education.

Where might we take applications of AI systems in education in the future?

Rose described that AI systems can possess some types of intelligence humans have or can develop: interdisciplinary academic intelligence, meta-knowing intelligence, and potentially social intelligence. However, there are types such as meta-contextual intelligence and perceived self-efficacy that AI systems are not able to demonstrate in the way humans can.

The seven types of human intelligence as defined by Rose Luckin: interdisciplinary academic knowledge, meta-knowing intelligence, social intelligence, metacognitive intelligence, meta-subjective intelligence, meta-contextual knowledge, perceived self-efficacy.

The use of AI systems in education can cause ethical issues. As an example, Rose pointed out the use of virtual glasses to identify when students need help, even if they do not realise it themselves. A system like this could help educators with assessing who in their class needs more help, and could link this back to student performance. However, using such a system like this has obvious ethical implications, and some of these were the focus of the Q&A that followed Rose’s presentation.

It’s clear that, in the education domain as in all other domains, both positive and negative outcomes of integrating AI are possible. In a recent paper written by Wayne Holmes (also from the UCL Knowledge Lab) and co-authors, ‘Ethics of AI in Education: Towards a Community Wide Framework’ [1], the authors suggest that the interpretation of data, consent and privacy, data management, surveillance, and power relations are all ethical issues that should be taken into consideration. Finding consensus for a practical ethical framework or set of principles, with all stakeholders, at the very start of an AI-related project is the only way to ensure ethics are built into the project and the AI system itself from the ground up.

Two boys at laptops in a classroom.

Ethical issues of AI systems more broadly, and how to involve young people in discussions of AI ethics, were the focus of our seminar with Dr Mhairi Aitken back in September. You can revisit the seminar recording, presentation slides, and summary blog post.

I really enjoyed both the focus and content of Rose’s talk: educators understanding how AI systems may be applied to education in order to help them make more informed decisions about how to best support their students. This is an important factor to consider in the context of the bigger picture of what young people should be learning about AI. The work that Rose and her colleagues are doing also makes an important contribution to translating research into practical models that teachers can use.

Join our next free seminars

You may still have time to sign up for our Tuesday 11 January seminar, today at 17:00–18:30 GMT, where we will welcome Dave Touretzky and Fred Martin, founders of the influential AI4K12 framework, which identifies the five big ideas of AI and how they can be integrated into education.

Next month, on 1 February at 17:00–18:30 GMT, Tara Chklovski (CEO of Technovation) will give a presentation called Teaching youth to use AI to tackle the Sustainable Development Goals at our seminar series.

If you want to join any of our seminars, click the button below to sign up and we will send you information on how to join. We look forward to seeing you there!

You’ll always find our schedule of upcoming seminars on this page. For previous seminars, you can visit our past seminars and recordings page.

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How do we develop AI education in schools? A panel discussion

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AI is a broad and rapidly developing field of technology. Our goal is to make sure all young people have the skills, knowledge, and confidence to use and create AI systems. So what should AI education in schools look like?

To hear a range of insights into this, we organised a panel discussion as part of our seminar series on AI and data science education, which we co-host with The Alan Turing Institute. Here our panel chair Tabitha Goldstaub, Co-founder of CogX and Chair of the UK government’s AI Council, summarises the event. You can also watch the recording below.

As part of the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s monthly AI education seminar series, I was delighted to chair a special panel session to broaden the range of perspectives on the subject. The members of the panel were:

  • Chris Philp, UK Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy
  • Philip Colligan, CEO of the Raspberry Pi Foundation 
  • Danielle Belgrave, Research Scientist, DeepMind
  • Caitlin Glover, A level student, Sandon School, Chelmsford
  • Alice Ashby, student, University of Brighton

The session explored the UK government’s commitment in the recently published UK National AI Strategy stating that “the [UK] government will continue to ensure programmes that engage children with AI concepts are accessible and reach the widest demographic.” We discussed what it will take to make this a reality, and how we will ensure young people have a seat at the table.

Two teenage girls do coding during a computer science lesson.

Why AI education for young people?

It was clear that the Minister felt it is very important for young people to understand AI. He said, “The government takes the view that AI is going to be one of the foundation stones of our future prosperity and our future growth. It’s an enabling technology that’s going to have almost universal applicability across our entire economy, and that is why it’s so important that the United Kingdom leads the world in this area. Young people are the country’s future, so nothing is complete without them being at the heart of it.”

A teacher watches two female learners code in Code Club session in the classroom.

Our panelist Caitlin Glover, an A level student at Sandon School, reiterated this from her perspective as a young person. She told us that her passion for AI started initially because she wanted to help neurodiverse young people like herself. Her idea was to start a company that would build AI-powered products to help neurodiverse students.

What careers will AI education lead to?

A theme of the Foundation’s seminar series so far has been how learning about AI early may impact young people’s career choices. Our panelist Alice Ashby, who studies Computer Science and AI at Brighton University, told us about her own process of deciding on her course of study. She pointed to the fact that terms such as machine learning, natural language processing, self-driving cars, chatbots, and many others are currently all under the umbrella of artificial intelligence, but they’re all very different. Alice thinks it’s hard for young people to know whether it’s the right decision to study something that’s still so ambiguous.

A young person codes at a Raspberry Pi computer.

When I asked Alice what gave her the courage to take a leap of faith with her university course, she said, “I didn’t know it was the right move for me, honestly. I took a gamble, I knew I wanted to be in computer science, but I wanted to spice it up.” The AI ecosystem is very lucky that people like Alice choose to enter the field even without being taught what precisely it comprises.

We also heard from Danielle Belgrave, a Research Scientist at DeepMind with a remarkable career in AI for healthcare. Danielle explained that she was lucky to have had a Mathematics teacher who encouraged her to work in statistics for healthcare. She said she wanted to ensure she could use her technical skills and her love for math to make an impact on society, and to really help make the world a better place. Danielle works with biologists, mathematicians, philosophers, and ethicists as well as with data scientists and AI researchers at DeepMind. One possibility she suggested for improving young people’s understanding of what roles are available was industry mentorship. Linking people who work in the field of AI with school students was an idea that Caitlin was eager to confirm as very useful for young people her age.

We need investment in AI education in school

The AI Council’s Roadmap stresses how important it is to not only teach the skills needed to foster a pool of people who are able to research and build AI, but also to ensure that every child leaves school with the necessary AI and data literacy to be able to become engaged, informed, and empowered users of the technology. During the panel, the Minister, Chris Philp, spoke about the fact that people don’t have to be technical experts to come up with brilliant ideas, and that we need more people to be able to think creatively and have the confidence to adopt AI, and that this starts in schools. 

A class of primary school students do coding at laptops.

Caitlin is a perfect example of a young person who has been inspired about AI while in school. But sadly, among young people and especially girls, she’s in the minority by choosing to take computer science, which meant she had the chance to hear about AI in the classroom. But even for young people who choose computer science in school, at the moment AI isn’t in the national Computing curriculum or part of GCSE computer science, so much of their learning currently takes place outside of the classroom. Caitlin added that she had had to go out of her way to find information about AI; the majority of her peers are not even aware of opportunities that may be out there. She suggested that we ensure AI is taught across all subjects, so that every learner sees how it can make their favourite subject even more magical and thinks “AI’s cool!”.

A primary school boy codes at a laptop with the help of an educator.

Philip Colligan, the CEO here at the Foundation, also described how AI could be integrated into existing subjects including maths, geography, biology, and citizenship classes. Danielle thoroughly agreed and made the very good point that teaching this way across the school would help prepare young people for the world of work in AI, where cross-disciplinary science is so important. She reminded us that AI is not one single discipline. Instead, many different skill sets are needed, including engineering new AI systems, integrating AI systems into products, researching problems to be addressed through AI, or investigating AI’s societal impacts and how humans interact with AI systems.

On hearing about this multitude of different skills, our discussion turned to the teachers who are responsible for imparting this knowledge, and to the challenges they face. 

The challenge of AI education for teachers

When we shifted the focus of the discussion to teachers, Philip said: “If we really want to equip every young person with the knowledge and skills to thrive in a world that shaped by these technologies, then we have to find ways to evolve the curriculum and support teachers to develop the skills and confidence to teach that curriculum.”

Teenage students and a teacher do coding during a computer science lesson.

I asked the Minister what he thought needed to happen to ensure we achieved data and AI literacy for all young people. He said, “We need to work across government, but also across business and society more widely as well.” He went on to explain how important it was that the Department for Education (DfE) gets the support to make the changes needed, and that he and the Office for AI were ready to help.

Philip explained that the Raspberry Pi Foundation is one of the organisations in the consortium running the National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE), which is funded by the DfE in England. Through the NCCE, the Foundation has already supported thousands of teachers to develop their subject knowledge and pedagogy around computer science.

A recent study recognises that the investment made by the DfE in England is the most comprehensive effort globally to implement the computing curriculum, so we are starting from a good base. But Philip made it clear that now we need to expand this investment to cover AI.

Young people engaging with AI out of school

Philip described how brilliant it is to witness young people who choose to get creative with new technologies. As an example, he shared that the Foundation is seeing more and more young people employ machine learning in the European Astro Pi Challenge, where participants run experiments using Raspberry Pi computers on board the International Space Station. 

Three teenage boys do coding at a shared computer during a computer science lesson.

Philip also explained that, in the Foundation’s non-formal CoderDojo club network and its Coolest Projects tech showcase events, young people build their dream AI products supported by volunteers and mentors. Among these have been autonomous recycling robots and AI anti-collision alarms for bicycles. Like Caitlin with her company idea, this shows that young people are ready and eager to engage and create with AI.

We closed out the panel by going back to a point raised by Mhairi Aitken, who presented at the Foundation’s research seminar in September. Mhairi, an Alan Turing Institute ethics fellow, argues that children don’t just need to learn about AI, but that they should actually shape the direction of AI. All our panelists agreed on this point, and we discussed what it would take for young people to have a seat at the table.

A Black boy uses a Raspberry Pi computer at school.

Alice advised that we start by looking at our existing systems for engaging young people, such as Youth Parliament, student unions, and school groups. She also suggested adding young people to the AI Council, which I’m going to look into right away! Caitlin agreed and added that it would be great to make these forums virtual, so that young people from all over the country could participate.

The panel session was full of insight and felt very positive. Although the challenge of ensuring we have a data- and AI-literate generation of young people is tough, it’s clear that if we include them in finding the solution, we are in for a bright future. 

What’s next for AI education at the Raspberry Pi Foundation?

In the coming months, our goal at the Foundation is to increase our understanding of the concepts underlying AI education and how to teach them in an age-appropriate way. To that end, we will start to conduct a series of small AI education research projects, which will involve gathering the perspectives of a variety of stakeholders, including young people. We’ll make more information available on our research pages soon.

In the meantime, you can sign up for our upcoming research seminars on AI and data science education, and peruse the collection of related resources we’ve put together.

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Customizable artificial intelligence and gesture recognition

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In many respects we think of artificial intelligence as being all encompassing. One AI will do any task we ask of it. But in reality, even when AI reaches the advanced levels we envision, it won’t automatically be able to do everything. The Fraunhofer Institute for Microelectronic Circuits and Systems has been giving this a lot of thought.

AI gesture training

Okay, so you’ve got an AI. Now you need it to learn the tasks you want it to perform. Even today this isn’t an uncommon exercise. But the challenge that Fraunhofer IMS set itself was training an AI without any additional computers.

As a test case, an Arduino Nano 33 BLE Sense was employed to build a demonstration device. Using only the onboard 9-axis motion sensor, the team built an untethered gesture recognition controller. When a button is pressed, the user draws a number in the air, and corresponding commands are wirelessly sent to peripherals. In this case, a robotic arm.

Embedded intelligence

At first glance this might not seem overly advanced. But consider that it’s running entirely from the device, with just a small amount of memory and an Arduino Nano. Fraunhofer IMS calls this “embedded intelligence,” as it’s not the robot arms that’s clever, but the controller itself.

This is achieved when training the device using a “feature extraction” algorithm. When the gesture is executed, the artificial neural network (ANN) is able to pick out only the relevant information. This allows for impressive data reduction and a very efficient, compact AI.

Fraunhofer IMS Arduino Nano with Gesture Recognition

Obviously this is just an example use case. It’s easy to see the massive potential that this kind of compact, learning AI could have. Whether it’s in edge control, industrial applications, wearables or maker projects. If you can train a device to do the job you want, it can offer amazing embedded intelligence with very few resources.

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Computing education and underrepresentation: the data from England

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In this blog post, I’ll discuss the first research seminar in our six-part series about diversity and inclusion. Let’s start by defining our terms. Diversity is any dimension that can be used to differentiate groups and people from one another. This might be, for example, age, gender, socio-economic status, disability, ethnicity, religion, nationality, or sexuality. The aim of inclusion is to embrace all people irrespective of difference.

It’s vital that we are inclusive in computing education, because we need to ensure that everyone can access and learn the empowering and enabling technical skills they need to support all aspects of their lives.

One male and two female teenagers at a computer

Between January and June of this year, we’re partnering with the Royal Academy of Engineering to host speakers from the UK and USA for a series of six research seminars focused on diversity and inclusion in computing education.

We kicked off the series with a seminar from Dr Peter Kemp and Dr Billy Wong focused on computing education in England’s schools post-14. Peter is a Lecturer in Computing Education at King’s College London, where he leads on initial teacher education in computing. His research areas are digital creativity and digital equity. Billy is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Education, University of Reading. His areas of research are educational identities and inequalities, especially in the context of higher education and STEM education.

Computing in England’s schools

Peter began the seminar with a comprehensive look at the history of curriculum change in Computing in England. This was very useful given our very international audience for these seminars, and I will summarise it below. (If you’d like more detail, you can look over the slides from the seminar. Note that these changes refer to England only, as education in the UK is devolved, and England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales each has a different education system.)

In 2014, England switched from mandatory ICT (Information and Communication Technology) to mandatory Computing (encompassing information technology, computer science, and digital literacy). This shift was complemented by a change in the qualifications for students aged 14–16 and 16–18, where the primary qualifications are GCSEs and A levels respectively:

  • At GCSE, there has been a transition from GCSE ICT to GCSE Computer Science over the last five years, with GCSE ICT being discontinued in 2017
  • At A level before 2014, ICT and Computing were on offer as two separate A levels; now there is only one, A level Computer Science

One of the issues is that in the English education system, there is a narrowing of the curriculum at age 14: students have to choose between Computer Science and other subjects such as Geography, History, Religious Studies, Drama, Music, etc. This means that those students that choose not to take a GCSE Computer Science (CS) may find that their digital education is thereby curtailed from then onwards. Peter’s and Billy’s view is that having a more specialist subject offer for age 14+ (Computer Science as opposed to ICT) means that fewer students take it, and they showed evidence of this from qualifications data. The number of students taking CS at GCSE has risen considerably since its introduction, but it’s not yet at the level of GCSE ICT uptake.

GCSE computer science and equity

Only 64% of schools in England offer GCSE Computer Science, meaning that just 81% of students have the opportunity to take the subject (some schools also add selection criteria). A higher percentage (90%) of selective grammar schools offer GCSE CS than do comprehensive schools (80%) or independent schools (39%). Peter suggested that this was making Computer Science a “little more elitist” as a subject.

Peter analysed data from England’s National Pupil Database (NPD) to thoroughly investigate the uptake of Computer Science post-14 with respect to the diversity of entrants.

He found that the gender gap for GCSE CS uptake is greater than it was for GCSE ICT. Now girls make up 22% of the cohort for GCSE CS (2020 data), whereas for the ICT qualification (2017 data), 43% of students were female.

Peter’s analysis showed that there is also a lower representation of black students and of students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds in the cohort for GCSE CS. In contrast, students with Chinese ancestry are proportionally more highly represented in the cohort. 

Another part of Peter’s analysis related gender data to the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI), which is used as an indicator of the level of poverty in England’s local authority districts. In the graphs below, a higher IDACI decile means more deprivation in an area. Relating gender data of GCSE CS uptake against the IDACI shows that:

  • Girls from more deprived areas are more likely to take up GCSE CS than girls from less deprived areas are
  • The opposite is true for boys
Two bar charts relating gender data of GCSE uptake against the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index. The graph plotting GCSE ICT data shows that students from areas with higher deprivation are slightly more likely to choose the GCSE, irrespective of gender. The graph plotting GCSE Computer Science data shows that girls from more deprived areas are more likely to take up GCSE CS than girls from less deprived areas, and the opposite is true for boys.

Peter covered much more data in the seminar, so do watch the video recording (below) if you want to learn more.

Peter’s analysis shows a lack of equity (i.e. equality of outcome in the form of proportional representation) in uptake of GCSE CS after age 14. It is also important to recognise, however, that England does mandate — not simply provide or offer — Computing for all pupils at both primary and secondary levels; making a subject mandatory is the only way to ensure that we do give access to all pupils.

What can we do about the lack of equity?

Billy presented some of the potential reasons for why some groups of young people are not fully represented in GCSE Computer Science:

  • There are many stereotypes surrounding the image of ‘the computer scientist’, and young people may not be able to identify with the perception they hold of ‘the computer scientist’
  • There is inequality in access to resources, as indicated by the research on science and STEM capital being carried out within the ASPIRES project

More research is needed to understand the subject choices young people make and their reasons for choosing as they do.

We also need to look at how the way we teach Computing to students aged 11 to 14 (and younger) affects whether they choose CS as a post-14 subject. Our next seminar revolves around equity-focused teaching practices, such as culturally relevant pedagogy or culturally responsive teaching, and how educators can use them in their CS learning environments. 

Meanwhile, our own research project at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, Gender Balance in Computing, investigates particular approaches in school and non-formal learning and how they can impact on gender balance in Computer Science. For an overview of recent research around barriers to gender balance in school computing, look back on the research seminar by Katharine Childs from our team.

Peter and Billy themselves have recently been successful in obtaining funding for a research project to explore female computing performance and subject choice in English schools, a project they will be starting soon!

If you missed the seminar, watch recording here. You can also find Peter and Billy’s presentation slides on our seminars page.

Next up in our seminar series

In our next research seminar on Tuesday 2 February at 17:00–18:30 BST / 12:00–13:30 EDT / 9:00–10:30 PDT / 18:00–19:30 CEST, we’ll welcome Prof Tia Madkins (University of Texas at Austin), Dr Nicol R. Howard (University of Redlands), and Shomari Jones (Bellevue School District), who are going to talk to us about culturally responsive pedagogy and equity-focused teaching in K-12 Computer Science. To join this free online seminar, simply sign up with your name and email address.

Once you’ve signed up, we’ll email you the seminar meeting link and instructions for joining. If you attended Peter’s and Billy’s seminar, the link remains the same.

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PRIMM: encouraging talk in programming lessons

via Raspberry Pi

Whenever you learn a new subject or skill, at some point you need to pick up the particular language that goes with that domain. And the only way to really feel comfortable with this language is to practice using it. It’s exactly the same when learning programming.

A girl doing Scratch coding in a Code Club classroom

In our latest research seminar, we focused on how we educators and our students can talk about programming. The seminar presentation was given by our Chief Learning Officer, Dr Sue Sentance. She shared the work she and her collaborators have done to develop a research-based approach to teaching programming called PRIMM, and to work with teachers to investigate the effects of PRIMM on students.

Sue Sentance

As well as providing a structure for programming lessons, Sue’s research on PRIMM helps us think about ways in which learners can investigate programs, start to understand how they work, and then gradually develop the language to talk about them themselves.

Productive talk for education

Sue began by taking us through the rich history of educational research into language and dialogue. This work has been heavily developed in science and mathematics education, as well as language and literacy.

In particular the work of Neil Mercer and colleagues has shown that students need guidance to develop and practice using language to reason, and that developing high-quality language improves understanding. The role of the teacher in this language development is vital.

Sue’s work draws on these insights to consider how language can be used to develop understanding in programming.

Why is programming challenging for beginners?

Sue identified shortcomings of some teaching approaches that are common in the computing classroom but may not be suitable for all beginners.

  • ‘Copy code’ activities for learners take a long time, lead to dreaded syntax errors, and don’t necessarily build more understanding.
  • When teachers model the process of writing a program, this can be very helpful, but for beginners there may still be a huge jump from being able to follow the modeling to being able to write a program from scratch themselves.

PRIMM was designed by Sue and her collaborators as a language-first approach where students begin not by writing code, but by reading it.

What is PRIMM?

PRIMM stands for ‘Predict, Run, Investigate, Modify, Make’. In this approach, rather than copying code or writing programs from scratch, beginners instead start by focussing on reading working code.

In the Predict stage, the teacher provides learners with example code to read, discuss, and make output predictions about. Next, they run the code to see how the output compares to what they predicted. In the Investigate stage, the teacher sets activities for the learners to trace, annotate, explain, and talk about the code line by line, in order to help them understand what it does in detail.

In the seminar, Sue took us through a mini example of the stages of PRIMM where we predicted the output of Python Turtle code. You can follow along on the recording of the seminar to get the experience of what it feels like to work through this approach.

The impact of PRIMM on learning

The PRIMM approach is informed by research, and it is also the subject of research by Sue and her collaborators. They’ve conducted two studies to measure the effectiveness of PRIMM: an initial pilot, and a larger mixed-methods study with 13 teachers and 493 students with a control group.

The larger study used a pre and post test, and found that the group who experienced a PRIMM approach performed better on the tests than the control group. The researchers also collected a wealth of qualitative feedback from teachers. The feedback suggested that the approach can help students to develop a language to express their understanding of programming, and that there was much more productive peer conversation in the PRIMM lessons (sometimes this meant less talk, but at a more advanced level).

The PRIMM structure also gave some teachers a greater capacity to talk about the process of teaching programming. It facilitated the discussion of teaching ideas and learning approaches for the teachers, as well as developing language approaches that students used to learn programming concepts.

The research results suggest that learners taught using PRIMM appear to be developing the language skills to talk coherently about their programming. The effectiveness of PRIMM is also evidenced by the number of teachers who have taken up the approach, building in their own activities and in some cases remixing the PRIMM terminology to develop their own take on a language-first approach to teaching programming.

Future research will investigate in detail how PRIMM encourages productive talk in the classroom, and will link the approach to other work on semantic waves. (For more on semantic waves in computing education, see this seminar by Jane Waite and this symposium talk by Paul Curzon.)

Resources for educators who want to try PRIMM

If you would like to try out PRIMM with your learners, use our free support materials:

Join our next seminar

If you missed the seminar, you can find the presentation slides alongside the recording of Sue’s talk on our seminars page.

In our next seminar on Tuesday 1 December at 17:00–18:30 GMT / 12:00–13:30 EsT / 9:00–10:30 PT / 18:00–19:30 CEST. Dr David Weintrop from the University of Maryland will be presenting on the role of block-based programming in computer science education. To join, simply sign up with your name and email address.

Once you’ve signed up, we’ll email you the seminar meeting link and instructions for joining. If you attended this past seminar, the link remains the same.

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