Tag Archives: research

Combining computing and maths to teach primary learners about variables

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In our first seminar of 2023, we were delighted to welcome Dr Katie Rich and Carla Strickland. They spoke to us about teaching the programming construct of variables in Grade 3 and 4 (age 8 to 10).

We are hearing from a diverse range of speakers in our current series of monthly online research seminars focused on primary (K-5) computing education. Many of them work closely with educators to translate research findings into classroom practice to make sure that all our younger learners have positive first experiences of learning computing. An important goal of their research is to impact the development of pedagogy, resources, and professional development to support educators to deliver computing concepts with confidence.

Variables in computing and mathematics

Dr Katie Rich (American Institutes of Research) and Carla Strickland (UChicago STEM Education) are both part of a team that worked on a research project called Everyday Computing, which aims to integrate computational thinking into primary mathematics lessons. A key part of the Everyday Computing project was to develop coherent learning resources across a number of school years. During the seminar, Katie and Carla presented on a study in the project that revolved around teaching variables in Grade 3 and 4 (age 8 to 10) by linking this computing concept to mathematical concepts such as area, perimeter, and fractions.

Young person using Scratch.

Variables are used in both mathematics and computing, but in significantly different ways. In mathematics, a variable, often represented by a single letter such as x or y, corresponds to a quantity that stays the same for a given problem. However, in computing, a variable is an identifier used to label data that may change as a computer program is executed. A variable is one of the programming constructs that can be used to generalise programs to make them work for a range of inputs. Katie highlighted that the research team was keen to explore the synergies and tensions that arise when curriculum subjects share terms, as is the case for ‘variable’. 

Defining a learning trajectory

At the start of the project, in order to be able to develop coherent learning resources across school years, the team reviewed research papers related to teaching the programming construct of variables. In the papers, they found a variety of learning goals that related to facts (what learners need to know) and skills (what learners need to be able to do). They grouped these learning goals and arranged the groups into ‘levels of thinking’, which were then mapped onto a learning trajectory to show progression pathways for learning.

Four of the five levels of thinking identified in the study: Data storer, data user, variable user, variable creator.
Four of the five levels of thinking identified in the study: Data Storer, Data User, Variable User, Variable Creator. Click to enlarge.

Learning materials about variables

Carla then shared three practical examples of learning resources their research team created that integrated the programming construct of variables into a maths curriculum. The three activities, described below, form part of a series of lessons called Action Fractions. You can read more about the series of lessons in this research paper.

Robot Boxes is an unplugged activity that is positioned at the Data User level of thinking. It relates to creating instructions for a fictional robot. Learners have to pay attention to different data the robot needs in order to draw a box, such as the length and width, and also to the value that the robot calculates as area of the box. The lesson uses boxes on paper as concrete representations of variables to which learners can physically add values.

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Ambling Animals is set at the ‘Data Storer’ and ‘Variable Interpreter’ levels of thinking. It includes a Scratch project to help students to locate and compare fractions on number lines. During this lesson, find a variable that holds the value of the animal that represents the larger of two fractions.

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Adding Fractions draws on facts and skills from the ‘Variable Interpreter’ and ‘Variable Implementer’ levels of thinking and also includes a Scratch project. The Scratch project visualises adding fractions with the same denominator on a number line. The lesson starts to explain why variables are so important in computer programs by demonstrating how using a variable can make code more efficient. 

Takeaways: Cross-curricular teaching, collaborative research

Teaching about the programming construct of variables can be challenging, as it requires young learners to understand abstract ideas. The research Katie and Carla presented shows how integrating these concepts into a mathematics curriculum is one way to highlight tangible uses of variables in everyday problems. The levels of thinking in the learning trajectory provide a structure helping teachers to support learners to develop their understanding and skills; the same levels of thinking could be used to introduce variables in other contexts and curricula.

A learner does physical computing in the primary school classroom.

Many primary teachers use cross-curricular learning to increase children’s engagement and highlight real-world examples. The seminar showed how important it is for teachers to pay attention to terms used across subjects, such as the word ‘variable’, and to explicitly explain a term’s different meanings. Katie and Carla shared a practical example of this when they suggested that computing teachers need to do more to stress the difference between equations such as xy = 45 in maths and assignment statements such as length = 45 in computing.

The Everyday Computing project resources were created by a team of researchers and educators who worked together to translate research findings into curriculum materials. This type of collaboration can be really valuable in driving a research agenda to directly improve learning outcomes for young people in classrooms. 

How can this research influence your classroom practice or other activities as an educator? Let us know your thoughts in the comments. We’ll be continuing to reflect on this question throughout the seminar series.

You can watch Katie’s and Carla’s full presentation here:

Join our seminar series on primary computing education

Our monthly seminar series on primary (K–5) teaching and learning is of interest to a global audience of educators, including those who want to understand the prior learning experiences of older learners.

We continue on Tuesday 7 February at 17.00 UK time, when we will hear from Dr Jean Salac, University of Washington. Jean will present her work in identifying inequities in elementary computing instruction and in developing a learning strategy, TIPP&SEE, to address these inequities. Sign up now, and we will send you a joining link for the session.

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What to expect from the Raspberry Pi Foundation in 2023

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Welcome to 2023.  I hope that you had a fantastic 2022 and that you’re looking forward to an even better year ahead. To help get the year off to a great start, I thought it might be fun to share a few of the things that we’ve got planned for 2023.

A teacher and learner at a laptop doing coding.

Whether you’re a teacher, a mentor, or a young person, if it’s computer science, coding, or digital skills that you’re looking for, we’ve got you covered. 

Your code in space 

Through our collaboration with the European Space Agency, Astro Pi, young people can write computer programs that are guaranteed to run on the Raspberry Pi computers on the International Space Station (terms and conditions apply).

Two Astro Pi units on board the International Space Station.
The Raspberry Pi computers on board the ISS (Image: ESA/NASA)

Astro Pi Mission Zero is open to participants until 17 March 2023 and is a perfect introduction to programming in Python for beginners. It takes about an hour to complete and we provide step-by-step guides for teachers, mentors, and young people. 

Make a cool project and share it with the world 

Kids all over the world are already working on their entries to Coolest Projects Global 2023, our international online showcase that will see thousands of young people share their brilliant tech creations with the world. Registration opens on 6 February and it’s super simple to get involved. If you’re looking for inspiration, why not explore the judges’ favourite projects from 2022?

Five young coders show off their robotic garden tech project for Coolest Projects.

While we all love the Coolest Projects online showcase, I’m also looking forward to attending more in-person Coolest Projects events in 2023. The word on the street is that members of the Raspberry Pi team have been spotted scouting venues in Ireland… Watch this space. 

Experience AI 

I am sure I wasn’t alone in disappearing down a ChatGPT rabbit hole at the end of last year after OpenAI made their latest AI chatbot available for free. The internet exploded with both incredible examples of what the chatbot can do and furious debates about the limitations and ethics of AI systems.

A group of young people investigate computer hardware together.

With the rapid advances being made in AI technology, it’s increasingly important that young people are able to understand how AI is affecting their lives now and the role that it can play in their future. This year we’ll be building on our research into the future of AI and data science education and launching Experience AI in partnership with leading AI company DeepMind. The first wave of resources and learning experiences will be available in March. 

The big Code Club and CoderDojo meetup

With pandemic restrictions now almost completely unwound, we’ve seen a huge resurgence in Code Clubs and CoderDojos meeting all over the world. To build on this momentum, we are delighted to be welcoming Code Club and CoderDojo mentors and educators to a big Clubs Conference in Churchill College in Cambridge on 24 and 25 March.

Workshop attendees at a table.

This will be the first time we’re holding a community get-together since 2019 and a great opportunity to share learning and make new connections. 

Building partnerships in India, Kenya, and South Africa 

As part of our global mission to ensure that every young person is able to learn how to create with digital technologies, we have been focused on building partnerships in India, Kenya, and South Africa, and that work will be expanding in 2023.

Two Kenyan educators work on a physical computing project.

In India we will significantly scale up our work with established partners Mo School and Pratham Education Foundation, training 2000 more teachers in government schools in Odisha, and running 2200 Code Clubs across four states. We will also be launching new partnerships with community-based organisations in Kenya and South Africa, helping them set up networks of Code Clubs and co-designing learning experiences that help them bring computing education to their communities of young people. 

Exploring computing education for 5- to 11-year-olds 

Over the past few years, our research seminar series has covered computing education topics from diversity and inclusion, to AI and data science. This year, we’re focusing on current questions and research in primary computing education for 5- to 11-year-olds.

A teacher and a learner at a laptop doing coding.

As ever, we’re providing a platform for some of the world’s leading researchers to share their insights, and convening a community of educators, researchers, and policy makers to engage in the discussion. The first seminar takes place today (Tuesday 10 January) and it’s not too late to sign up.

And much, much more… 

That’s just a few of the super cool things that we’ve got planned for 2023. I haven’t even mentioned the new online projects we’re developing with our friends at Unity, the fun we’ve got planned with our very own online text editor, or what’s next for our curriculum and professional development offer for computing teachers.

You can sign up to our monthly newsletter to always stay up to date with what we’re working on.

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Gender Balance in Computing — the big picture

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Improving gender balance in computing is part of our work to ensure equitable learning opportunities for all young people. Our Gender Balance in Computing (GBIC) research programme has been the largest effort to date to explore ways to encourage more girls and young women to engage with Computing.

A girl in a university computing classroom.

Commissioned by the Department for Education in England and led by the Raspberry Pi Foundation as part of our National Centre for Computing Education work, the GBIC programme was a collaborative effort involving the Behavioural Insights Team, Apps for Good, and the WISE Campaign.

Gender Balance in Computing ran from 2019 to 2022 and comprised seven studies relating to five different research areas:

  • Teaching Approach:
  • Belonging: Supporting learners to feel that they “belong” in computer science
  • Non-formal Learning: Establishing the connections between in-school and out-of-school computing
  • Relevance: Making computing relatable to everyday life
  • Subject Choice: How computer science is presented to young people as a subject choice 

In December we published the last of seven reports describing the results of the programme. In this blog post I summarise our overall findings and reflect on what we’ve learned through doing this research.

Gender balance in computing is not a new problem

I was fascinated to read a paper by Deborah Butler from 2000 which starts by summarising themes from research into gender balance in computing from the 1980s and 1990s, for example that boys may have access to more role models in computing and may receive more encouragement to pursue the subject, and that software may be developed with a bias towards interests traditionally considered to be male. Butler’s paper summarises research from at least two decades ago — have we really made progress?

A computing classroom filled with learners.

In England, it’s true that making Computing a mandatory subject from age 5 means we have taken great strides forward; the need for young people to make a choice about studying the subject only arises at age 14. However, statistics for England’s externally assessed high-stakes Computer Science courses taken at ages 14–16 (GCSE) and 16–18 (A level) clearly show that, although there is a small upwards trend in the proportion of female students, particularly for A level, gender balance among the students achieving GCSE/A level qualifications remains an issue:

Computer Science qualification (England):In 2018:In 2021:In 2022:
GCSE (age 16)20.41%20.77%21.37%
A level (age 18)11.74%14.71%15.17%
Percentage of girls among the students achieving Computer Science qualifications in England’s secondary schools

What did we do in the Gender Balance in Computing programme?

In GBIC, we carried out a range of research studies involving more than 14,500 pupils and 725 teachers in England. Implementation teams came from the Foundation, Apps For Good, the WISE Campaign, and the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT). A separate team at BIT acted as the independent evaluators of all the studies.

In total we conducted the following studies:

  • Two feasibility studies: Storytelling; Relevance, which led to a full randomised controlled trial (RCT)
  • Five RCTs: Belonging; Peer Instruction; Pair Programming; Relevance, which was preceded by a feasibility study; Non-formal Learning (primary)
  • One quasi-experimental study: Non-formal Learning (secondary)
  • One exploratory research study: Subject Choice (Subject choice evenings and option booklets)

Each study (apart from the exploratory research study) involved a 12-week intervention in schools. Bespoke materials were developed for all the studies, and teachers received training on how to deliver the intervention they were a part of. For the RCTs, randomisation was done at school level: schools were randomly divided into treatment and control groups. The independent evaluators collected both quantitative and qualitative data to ensure that we gained comprehensive insights from the schools’ experiences of the interventions. The evaluators’ reports and our associated blog posts give full details of each study.

The impact of the pandemic

The research programme ran from 2019 to 2022, and as it was based in schools, we faced a lot of challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many research programmes meant to take place in school were cancelled as soon as schools shut during the pandemic.

A learner and a teacher in a computing classroom.

Although we were fortunate that GBIC was allowed to continue, we were not allowed to extend the end date of the programme. Thus our studies were compressed into the period after schools reopened and primarily delivered in the academic year 2021/2022. When schools were open again, the implementation of the studies was affected by teacher and pupil absences, and by schools necessarily focusing on making up some of the lost time for learning.

The overall results of Gender Balance in Computing

Quantitatively, none of the RCTs showed a statistically significant impact on the primary outcome measured, which was different in different trials but related to either learners’ attitudes to computer science or their intention to study computer science. Most of the RCTs showed a positive impact that fell just short of statistical significance. The evaluators went to great lengths to control for pandemic-related attrition, and the implementation teams worked hard to support teachers in still delivering the interventions as designed, but attrition and disruptions due to the pandemic may have played a part in the results.

Woman teacher and female students at a computer

The qualitative research results were more encouraging. Teachers were enthusiastic about the approaches we had chosen in order to address known barriers to gender balance, and the qualitative data indicated that pupils reacted positively to the interventions. One key theme across the Teaching Approach (and other) studies was that girls valued collaboration and teamwork. The data also offered insights that enable us to improve on the interventions.

We designed the studies so they could act as pilots that may be rolled out at a national scale. While we have gained sufficient understanding of what works to be able to run the interventions at a larger scale, two particular learnings shape our view of what a large-scale study should look like:

1. A single intervention may not be enough to have an impact

The GBIC results highlight that there is no quick fix and suggest that we should combine some of the approaches we’ve been trialling to provide a more holistic approach to teaching Computing in an equitable way. We would recommend that schools adopt several of the approaches we’ve tested; the materials associated with each intervention are freely available (see our blog posts for links).

2. Age matters

One of the very interesting overall findings from this research programme was the difference in intent to study Computing between primary school and secondary school learners; fewer secondary school learners reported intent to study the subject further. This difference was observed for both girls and boys, but was more marked for girls, as shown in the graph below. This suggests that we need to double down on supporting children, especially girls, to maintain their interest in Computing as they enter secondary school at age 11. It also points to a need for more longitudinal research to understand more about the transition period from primary to secondary school and how it impacts children’s engagement with computer science and technology in general.

Bar graph showing that in the Gender Balance in Computing research programme, learners intent to continue studying computing was lower in secondary school than primary school, and that this difference  is more pronounced for girls.
Compared to primary school age girls, girls aged 12 to 13 show dramatically reduced intent to continue studying computing.

What’s next?

We think that more time (in excess of 12 weeks) is needed to both deliver the interventions and measure their outcome, as the change in learners’ attitudes may be slow to appear, and we’re hoping to engage in more longitudinal research moving forward.

In a computing classroom, a girl looks at a computer screen.

We know that an understanding of computer science can improve young people’s access to highly skilled jobs involving technology and their understanding of societal issues, and we need that to be available to all. However, gender balance relating to computing and technology is a deeply structural issue that has existed for decades throughout the computing education and workplace ecosystem. That’s why we intend to pursue more work around a holistic approach to improving gender balance, aligning with our ongoing research into making computing education culturally relevant.

Stay in touch

We are very keen to continue to build on our research on gender balance in computing. If you’d like to support us in any way, we’d love to hear from you. To explore the research projects we’re currently involved in, check out our research pages and visit the website of the Raspberry Pi Computing Education Research Centre at the University of Cambridge.

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Combining research and practice to evaluate and improve computing education in non-formal settings

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In the final seminar in our series on cross-disciplinary computing, Dr Tracy Gardner and Rebecca Franks, who work here at the Foundation, described the framework underpinning the Foundation’s non-formal learning pathways. They also shared insights from our recently published literature review about the impact that non-formal computing education has on learners.

Tracy and Rebecca both have extensive experience in teaching computing, and they are passionate about inspiring young learners and broadening access to computing education. In their work here, they create resources and content for learners in coding clubs and young people at home.

How non-formal learning creates opportunities for computing education

UNESCO defines non-formal learning as “institutionalised, intentional, and planned… an addition, alternative, and/or complement to formal education within the process of life-long learning of individuals”. In terms of computing education, this kind of learning happens in after-school programmes or children’s homes as they engage with materials that have been carefully designed by education providers.

At the Raspberry Pi Foundation, we support two global networks of free, volunteer-led coding clubs where regular non-formal learning takes place: Code Club, teacher- and volunteer-led coding clubs for 9- to 13-year-olds taking place in schools in more than160 countries; and CoderDojo, volunteer-led programming clubs for young people aged 7–17 taking place in community venues and offices in 100 countries. Through free learning resources and other support, we enable volunteers to run their club sessions, offering versatile opportunities and creative, inclusive spaces for young people to learn about computing outside of the school curriculum. Volunteers who run Code Clubs or CoderDojos report that participating in the club sessions positively impacts participants’ programming skills and confidence.

Rebecca and Tracy are part of the team here that writes the learning resources young people in Code Clubs and CoderDojos (and beyond) use to learn to code and create technology. 

Helping learners make things that matter to them

Rebecca started the seminar by describing how the team reviewed existing computing pedagogy research into non-formal learning, as well as large amounts of website visitor data and feedback from volunteers, to establish a new framework for designing and creating coding resources in the form of learning paths.

What the Raspberry Pi Foundation takes into account when creating non-formal learning resources: what young people are making, young people's interests, research, user data, our own experiences as educators, the Foundation's other educational offers, ideas of purpose-driven computing.
What the Raspberry Pi Foundation takes into account when creating non-formal learning resources. Click to enlarge.

As Rebecca explained, non-formal learning paths should be designed to bridge the so-called ‘Turing tar-pit’: the gap between what learners want to do, and what they have the knowledge and resources to achieve.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation's non-formal learning resources bridge the so-called Turing tar pit, in which learners get stuck when they feel everything is possible to create, but nothing is easy.

To prevent learners from getting frustrated and ultimately losing interest in computing, learning paths need to:

  • Be beginner-friendly
  • Include scaffolding
  • Support learner’s design skills
  • Relate to things that matter to learners

When Rebecca and Tracy’s team create new learning paths, they first focus on the things that learners want to make. Then they work backwards to bridge the gap between learners’ big ideas and the knowledge and skills needed to create them. To do this, they use the 3…2…1…Make! framework they’ve developed.

An illustration of the 3-2-1 structure of the new Raspberry Pi Foundation coding project paths.
An illustration of the 3…2…1…Make! structure of the new Raspberry Pi Foundation non-formal learning paths.

Learning paths designed according to the framework are made up of three different types of project in a 3-2-1 structure:

  • Three Explore projects to introduce creators to a set of skills and provide step-by-step instructions to help them develop initial confidence
  • Two Design projects to allow creators to practise the skills they learned in the previous Explore projects, and to express themselves creatively while they grow in independence
  • One Invent project where creators use their skills to meet a project brief for a particular audience

You can learn more about the framework in this blog post and this guide for adults who run sessions with young people based on the learning paths. And you can explore the learning paths yourself too.

Rebecca and Tracy’s team have created several new learning pathways based on the 3…2…1…Make! framework and received much positive feedback on them. They are now looking to develop more tools and libraries to support learners, to increase the accessibility of the paths, and also to conduct research into the impact of the framework. 

New literature review of non-formal computing education showcases its positive impact

In the second half of the seminar, Tracy shared what the research literature says about the impact of non-formal learning. She and researchers at the Foundation particularly wanted to find out what the research says about computing education for K–12 in non-formal settings. They systematically reviewed 421 papers, identifying 88 papers from the last seven years that related to empirical research on non-formal computing education for young learners. Based on these 88 papers, they summarised the state of the field in a literature review.

So far, most studies of non-formal computing education have looked at knowledge and skill development in computing, as well as affective factors such as interest and perception. The cognitive impact of non-formal education has been generally positive. The papers Tracy and the research reviewed suggested that regular learning opportunities, such as weekly Code Clubs, were beneficial for learners’ knowledge development, and that active teaching of problem solving skills can lead to learners’ independence.

In the literature review the Raspberry Pi Foundation team conducted, most research studies were university-organised on projects to broaden participation and interest development in immersive multi-day settings.

Non-formal computing education also seems to be beneficial in terms of affective factors (although it is unclear yet whether the benefits remain long-term, since most existing research studies conducted have been short-term ones). For example, out-of-school programmes can lead to more positive perception and increased awareness of computing for learners, and also boost learners’ confidence and self-efficacy if they have had little prior experience of computing. The social aspects of participating in coding clubs should not be underestimated, as learners can develop a sense of belonging and support as they work with their peers and mentors.

The affordances of non-formal computing activities that complement formal education: access and awareness, cultural relevance and equity, practice and personalisation, fun and engagement, community and identity, immediate impact.

The literature review showed that non-formal computing complements formal in-school education in many ways. Not only can Code Clubs and CoderDojos be accessible and equitable spaces for all young people, because the people who run them can tailor learning to the individuals. Coding clubs such as these succeed in making computing fun and engaging by enabling a community to form and allowing learners to make things that are meaningful to them.

What existing studies in non-formal computing aren’t telling us

Another thing the literature review made obvious is that there are big gaps in the existing understanding of non-formal computing education that need to be researched in more detail. For example, most of the studies the papers in the literature review described took place with female students in middle schools in the US.

That means the existing research tells us little about non-formal learning:

  • In other geographic locations
  • In other educational settings, such as primary schools or after-school programmes
  • For a wider spectrum of learners

We would also love to see studies that hone in on:

  • The long-term impact of non-formal learning
  • Which specific factors contribute to positive outcomes
  • Non-formal learning about aspects of computing beyond programming

3…2…1…research!

We’re excited to continue collaborating within the Foundation so that our researchers and our team creating non-formal learning content can investigate the impact of the 3…2…1…Make! framework.

At Coolest Projects, a group of people explore a coding project.
The aim of the 3…2…1…Make! framework is to enable young people to create things and solve problems that matter to them using technology.

This collaboration connects two of our long-term strategic goals: to engage millions of young people in learning about computing and how to create with digital technologies outside of school, and to deepen our understanding of how young people learn about computing and how to create with digital technologies, and to use that knowledge to increase the impact of our work and advance the field of computing education. Based on our research, we will iterate and improve the framework, in order to enable even more young people to realise their full potential through the power of computing and digital technologies. 

Join our seminar series on primary computing education

From January, you can join our new monthly seminar series on primary (K–5) teaching and learning. In this series, we’ll hear insights into how our youngest learners develop their computing knowledge, so whether you’re a volunteer in a coding club, a teacher, a researcher, or simply interested in the topic, we’d love to see you at one of these monthly online sessions.

The first seminar, on Tuesday 10 January at 5pm UK time, will feature researchers and educators Dr Katie Rich and Carla Strickland. They will share findings on how to teach children about variables, one of the most difficult aspects of computing for young learners. Sign up now, and we will send you notifications and joining links for each seminar session.

We look forward to seeing you soon, and to discussing with you how we can apply research results to better support all our learners.

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Non-formal learning activities: What do we know and how do we apply it to computing?

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At the Raspberry Pi Foundation, we engage young people in learning about computing and creating with digital technologies. We do this not only by developing curricula for formal education and introducing tens of thousands of children around the world to coding at home, but also through supporting non-formal learning activities such as Code Club and CoderDojo.

A teacher watches two female learners code in Code Club session in the classroom.
Code Clubs are after-school coding clubs.

To find out what works in non-formal computing learning, we’ve conducted two research projects recently: a systematic literature review, and a set of two interventions that were applied and evaluated as part of our Gender Balance in Computing programme. In this blog, we outline these two research projects.

What is non-formal learning?

When you think of young people learning computing, do you think of schools, classrooms, and curricula? You’d be right that lots of computing education for young people takes place in classrooms as part of national curricula. However, a lot of learning can take place outside of formal schooling. When we talk about non-formal computing education, we mean structured or semi-structured learning environments such as clubs or community groups, often set up by volunteers. These may take place in a school, library, or community venue; but we’ve also heard of some of our communities running non-formal learning activities on buses, in fire stations, or at football grounds  — there really is no limit to where learning can happen.

A CoderDojo coding session for young people.
CoderDojos are community-based coding clubs and some take place in offices.

It’s harder to assess the impact and effectiveness of non-formal computing activities than formal computing education: we have to think outside of the traditional measures such as grades and formal exams or assessments. Instead, we estimate outcomes according to measures such as level of participant engagement, attendance, attrition rates, and changes in participants’ attitudes towards computing. We have previously also piloted non-formal assessments such as quizzes and found that these were well-received by adult facilitators and children alike. 

Project 1: Researching the impact of non-formal computing education

Earlier this year, we conducted a systematic literature review into computing education for K–12 learners in non-formal settings. We identified 88 relevant research studies, which we read, compared, and synthesised to provide an overview of what is already known about the effectiveness of non-formal computing activities and to identify opportunities for further research. 

Our analysis looked for common themes within existing studies and suggested some benefits that non-formal learning offers, including: 

  • Access to advanced and innovative topics
  • Awareness about computing careers 
  • The chance to personalise projects according to learner interests
  • The opportunity for learners to progress at their own pace
  • The chance for learners to develop a sense of community through peers and role models

We presented this research at an international computing education conference called ICER 2022, and you can read about it in our open-access paper in the ICER conference proceedings.

A tweet about a presentation about non-formal learning at the ICER 2022 conference.

Project 2: Making links between non-formal learning and formal computing study skills 

One particularly interesting characteristic of non-formal learning is that it tends to attract a broader range of learners than formal computing lessons. For example, a 2019 survey found that about 40% of the young people who attend Code Clubs were female. This is a high percentage compared with the proportion of girls among the learners choosing Computer Science GCSE in England, which is currently around 20%. We believe this points to an opportunity to capitalise on girls’ interest in learning activities outside of the classroom, and we hope to use non-formal activities to encourage more girls to take an interest in formal computer science education.

Two learners from Code Club at Hillside School.
Code Clubs are well-attended by girls.

As part of our Gender Balance in Computing research programme in England, we worked with Apps for Good and the Behavioual Insights Team (BIT) to run two interventions in school-based non-formal settings, for which we adapted non-formal resources and used behavioural science concepts to strengthen the links the resources make between non-formal learning and studying computing more formally. One intervention ran in secondary schools for learners aged 13–14 years old, who used an adapted Apps for Good course, and the other ran in primary school for learners aged 8–11 year olds, who took part in Code Clubs using adapted versions of our projects.

A tweet from a school participating in a research project related to non-formal learning.

The interventions were evaluated independently by a separate team from BIT, based on data from surveys completed by learners before and after the interventions, and interviews with teachers and learners. This data was analysed by the independent team to explore the impact the interventions had on learners’ attitudes towards computing and intention to study the subject in the future. 

What did we learn from these research projects? 

Our literature review concluded that future research in this area would benefit from experimenting with a variety of approaches to designing, and measuring the impact of, computing activities in a non-formal setting. For example, this could include comparing the short-term and long-term impact of specific interventions, aiming to cater for different types of participants, and offering different types of learning experiences.

A girl codes at a laptop while a woman looks on during a Code Club session.

In these two Gender Balance in Computing interventions, there was limited statistical evidence of an improvement in participants’ attitude towards computing or in their stated intention to study computer programming in the future. The independent evaluators recommended that the learning content that was created for the interventions could be adapted further to make the link between non-formal and formal learning even more salient. On the other hand, as is often the case with research, some interesting themes — ones that we weren’t looking for — emerged from the data, including: 

  • In the secondary school intervention, there was a small, positive change in girls’ attitudes toward computing when they saw that it was relevant to real-world problems
  • In the primary school intervention, some teachers also reported an increased confidence to pursue computing among girls who had used the adapted Code Club resources, and they highlighted the importance of positive female role models in computing

In both projects, the findings suggest that it is beneficial for learners to participate in non-formal learning activities that link to real-world situations, and that this could be particularly beneficial for girls to help them see computing as a subject that is relevant to their own interests and goals. Another common theme in both projects is that non-formal learning activities play an important role in showing what a “computer person” looks like and who belongs in computing. This suggests there’s a need for a diverse range of volunteers to run non-formal computing activities, and that we should make sure that non-formal learning resources include representations of a diverse range of learners.

Computing classroom with woman teacher and young students at laptops doing Scratch coding.

Undertaking these research projects has provided evidence that the work the Foundation does is on the right track and suggested opportunities to use these themes in our future non-formal work and resources. 

Find out more about our work on non-formal computing education

More information about research projects at the Raspberry Pi Foundation and our newly launched Raspberry Pi Computing Education Research Centre can be found on our research pages and on the Research Centre’s website.

The post Non-formal learning activities: What do we know and how do we apply it to computing? appeared first on Raspberry Pi.

Building a maths curriculum for a world shaped by computing

via Raspberry Pi

In the penultimate seminar in our series on cross-disciplinary computing, we were delighted to host Conrad Wolfram (European co-founder/CEO of Wolfram Research).

Conrad Wolfram.
Conrad Wolfram

Conrad has been an influential figure in the areas of AI, data science, and computation for over 30 years. The company he co-founded, Wolfram Research, develops computational technologies including the Wolfram programming language, which is used by the Mathematica and WolframAlpha programs. In the seminar, Conrad spoke about his work on developing a mathematics curriculum “for the AI age”.

In a computing classroom, a girl laughs at what she sees on the screen.

Computation is everywhere

In his talk, Conrad began by talking about the ubiquity of computation. He explained how computation (i.e. an operation that follows conditions to give a defined output) has transformed our everyday lives and led to the development of entire new sub-disciplines, such as computational medicine, computational marketing, and even computational agriculture. He then used the WolframAlpha tool to give several practical examples of applying high-level computation to problem-solving in different areas.

A line graph comparing the population of the UK with the number of sheep in New Zealand.
Yes, there are more people in the UK than sheep in New Zealand.

The power of computation for mathematics

Conrad then turned his attention to the main question of his talk: if computation has also changed real-world mathematics, how should school-based mathematics teaching respond? He suggested that, as computation has impacted all aspects of our daily lives, school subjects should be reformed to better prepare students for the careers of the future.

A diagram indicating that hand calculating takes up a lot of time in current maths classes.
Hand calculation methods are time-consuming.

His biggest criticism was the use of hand calculation methods in mathematics teaching. He proposed that a mathematics curriculum that “assumes computers exist” and uses computers (rather than humans) to compute answers would better support students to develop a deep understanding of mathematical concepts and principles. In other words, if students spent less time doing hand-calculation methods, they could devote more time to more complex problems.

What does computational problem-solving look like?

One interesting aspect of Conrad’s talk was how he modelled the process of solving problems using computation. In all of the example problems, he outlined that computational problem-solving follows the same four-step process:

  1. Define the question: Students think about the scope and details of the problem and define answerable questions to tackle.
  2. Abstract to computable form: Using the information provided, students translate the question into a precise abstract form, such as a diagram or algorithm, so that it can be solved by a computer-based agent.
  3. Computer answers: Using the power of computation, students solve the abstract question and resolve any issues during the computation process.
  4. Interpret results: Students reinterpret and recontextualise the abstract answer to derive useful results. If problems emerge, students refine or fix their work.

Depending on the problem, the process can be repeated multiple times until the desired solution is reached. Rather than being proposed as a static list of outcomes, the process was presented by Conrad as an iterative cycle than resembles an “ascending helix”:

A helix representing the iterative cycle of computational problem-solving.
The problem-solving ‘helix’ model.

A curriculum for a world with AI

In the later stages of his talk, Conrad talked about the development of a new computational curriculum to better define what a modern mathematics curriculum might look like. The platform that hosts the curriculum, named Computer-Based Math (or CBM), outlines the need to integrate computational thinking into mathematics in schools. For instance, one of the modules, How Fast Could I Cycle Stage 7 Of The An Post Rás?, asks students to develop a computational solution to a real-world problem. Following the four-step problem-solving process, students apply mathematical models, computational tools, and real-world data to generate a valid solution:

A module from Wolfram Research’s Computer-Based Maths curriculum.
Sample module from Computer-Based Math. Click to enlarge.

Some future challenges he remarked on included how a computer-based mathematics curriculum could be integrated with existing curricula or qualifications, at what ages computational mathematics should be taught, and what assessment, training, and hardware would be needed to support teachers to deliver such a curriculum. 

Conrad concluded the talk by arguing that the current need for computational literacy is similar to the need for mass literacy and pondering whether the UK could lead the push towards a new computational curriculum suitable for learners who grow up with AI technologies. This point provided food for thought during our discussion section, especially for teachers interested in embedding computation into their lessons, and for researchers thinking about the impact of AI in different fields. We’re grateful to Conrad for speaking about his work and mission — long may it continue!

You can catch up on Conrad’s talk with his slides and the talk’s recording:

More to explore

Conrad’s book, The Math(s) Fix: An Education Blueprint for the AI Age, gives more details on how he thinks data science, AI, and computation could be embedded into the modern maths curriculum.

You can also explore Wolfram Research’s Computer-Based Maths curriculum, which offers learning materials to help teachers embed computation in their maths lessons. 

Finally, try out Wolfram’s tools to solve everyday problems using computation. For example, you might ask WolframAlpha data-rich questions, which the tool converts from text input into a computable problem using natural language processing. (Two of my favourite example questions are: “How old was Leonardo when the Mona Lisa was painted?” and “What was the weather like when I was born?”)

Join our next seminar

In the final seminar of our series on cross-curricular computing, we welcome Dr Tracy Gardner and Rebecca Franks (Raspberry Pi Foundation) to present their ongoing work on computing education in non-formal settings. Sign up now to join us for this session on Tues 8 November:

We will shortly be announcing the theme of a brand-new series of research seminars starting in January 2023. The seminars will take place online on the first Tuesday of the month at 17:00–18:30 UK time.

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