@CASInclude #DefineSouth : the big writeup

I’ve been talking about #DefineSouth for quite a while, and today the day finally came.

Myself and Craig had an “unGodley” start (Arthur’s puns are aweful) to the day at 7am, and we drove over to Bath at 8am. I wanted to be there early as I was both talking and setting up my workshop for the day, and Windows likes to be a nastypasty about Gemma drivers so the more time to fix things, the better.

Got to Bath and met up with Graham, one of the members of the pi-pub Bristol unofficial meetup who’d agreed to take the trip from Cornwall to help out for the day, and managed to find The Royal High School Bath which turned out to look rather a lot like Hogwarts:

We were greeted by Laura (or Miss Dixon) who’s the head of ICT there and the head of CAS Include, who showed us to my very nice computer room for the workshop and introduced us to the ICT technicians who helped get the computers up and running with Arduino. This turned out to go without a hitch and I’d got time to run back to the hall and set my lovely talk up and meet Meri Williams who was the other speaker and a very lovely lady.

After I’d checked my slides were all good I went back to make sure everything was ready back in the computer room, had time to grab a cuppa and then get on with my talk.

I felt overall my talk – 5 reasons to be in tech, with focus given to the creation of new stuff rather than the “hard” programming bit – went well, I made sure to ask the kids if they knew what everything I had on screen was and most seemed to have an answer – the only issue being uhm. Mixing up my left, and my right, with the audience’s left and right…whoops. I thought it was going to be harder talking to kids or that I’d get nervy because I knew 3 or 4 people in the audience, but in actual fact it was easier – the hardest thing I find with public speaking is the fact when you’re up there, you get about 50 adults all looking at you like they’re bored out of their brains and grumpy about it. Kids? Nope they’re all grinning, particularly when you get them to participate. So there you go.

At this point helper number 2 Arthur appeared having decided to not get up at an UnGodley hour and we got our juice and cookies, then headed back to the computer suite to prepare for the hoardes of screaming children. (Not many of them were screaming.)

In the first batch we had a mix of kids ranging from the really bright and helpful to the ones who wanted to dordle on their swivel chairs, as is always the case with these kinds of things. Wisely we made the kids turn their screens off – I remember this being a thing in y7/y8 so I could tell from the attitudes of some of the kids who’d already pulled up google and changed the background to pink on it for jokes that it’d be a good plan.

Went through the explanation of what we were doing, slowly guided them through the signalling wire hookup and explained what it was, and then let them loose on the worksheets for the rest of the slot. About halfway through the brilliant David McAll turned up to provide some more help – he’d previously helped me in workshops and offered to pitch in again, which was lovely.

On the whole it went well: all the kids got a circuit going, but at the programming portion…uhm…well…it was a bit slow, due to the fact everyone was running arduino from the network school drive, which therefore meant compile time was something like 3 minutes. No matter, a lot of the kids got through it and these 3 lovely ladies proudly said they’d finished and were helping out all the other children:

[picture nicked from RHSBCareers twitter – hope you don’t mind!]

Thing to remember about workshops is that size also determines speed: in this instance I didn’t bother suggesting sewing because well, programming took ages and there simply wasn’t enough time to have some children on circuits, some on programming and some on sewing as that would be difficult to manage.

One of my favourite moments of this section was both these girls pride at how well they’d done (“LOOK IT’S PINK! LOOK IT’S MULTICOLOURED!”) but also a girl sat in the back corner asking about studying Computer Science. It’s not something I’d ever expect because all the volunteering I do is a pipeline and it’s a while till they choose what direction to head in, but once again she’d been influenced by a family member who studied it and was wondering whether it was hard to get into it and required a lot of programming. I gave her my standard advice that no, it’s not hard once you get your brain into problem solving mode, and suggested she head towards codecademy for help learning to code, but also mentioned there’s plenty of roles in CS that don’t need code if that’s a blocker.

After an hour and a quarter they moved on, and David, Graham, Arthur and myself ran round the 11 pcs plus tester machine copying down the Arduino IDE from the network so that programming would be quicker. This meant we had no time for lunch but Graham managed to go grab us some sarnies during the next session, so none of us minded too much.

In the second session we had fewer numbers and older students, and in general it was more controlled: I properly explained the programming portion since I hadn’t bothered the first time round and this lead to it being a bit less erratic. By the third session which was another big group, I felt I’d got the pattern and got it all under control: iterations of workshops are so important because it means you know what works, what doesn’t, what needs improving and where people are likely to get stuck. That last part was why I explained the signal wire to the kids step by step, because during the Guiding workshop, this was the hardest bit to explain on the worksheet.

Another anecdote of interest was the moment I helped a boy with programming in the final workshop, who at the beginning had been dordling and not paying attention to my explanation of wiring, and was showing and explaining the colour changing bits at the top, and he went “OH this is hexadecimal isn’t it?!” without any prompting…I err. Yeah I wasn’t expecting that.

Finally the day wrapped up, and Emma-Ashley showed us the results of our efforts:

me and my helper crew set about getting the kits into bags and into my car, we headed downstairs for refreshments and got given cake and chocolates for helping out. Spoke to Emma-Ashley about her experiences at Hull and various catchup-y things having never actually met each other but again having several internet conversations (this is why I love twitter), and then we headed off to nando’s to carry on talking before Craig and myself went back up to Bristol.

Overall, a fab day, really well organised, great venue and a huge thankyou to Laura and the CAS #Include crew for organising everything and generally being that awesome. I loved every minute.

Future improvements on my workshop

1. A better storage method for the kits: I use 2 pimoroni tote bags at the mo because you know, I’m basically a walking talking advertisement for pimoroni at times, but I want to move to a reasonably big compartmentalised box with space for a couple of netbooks. This is because the packup process is a pain, so it’d be nice if not to pack all the kits back up, to separate them out into each component section for easy kit-recreation.

2. Work on making the sewing bit easier to integrate: I’m possibly thinking of getting a design done, similar to what kitronik do with the cat kits or what Lisa did for Jamboree bags, and printed to fabric, like a bird or a cat or something with markings for each bit. The thing is the main thing I want the children to take away from the workshops is programming and that electronics aren’t that complicated or expensive, so sewing’s always a bit of an extra if I have longer workshops.

3. Delete all my code from my laptop and start again from github – also check for the bugs we had during workshop: I think I must have several copies of the sketch on my drive somewhere and we’d got the wrong one which had a couple of buggy bits in there. Code worked for the day, but still a little annoying having one particular algorithm not do what I thought it would do.

4. Add a 5th takeaway sheet to all my resources which has all the links to where parents and teachers can get resources, tutorials and kits: I meant to do this but forgot (as I did with wearing my GEMMA necklace so I had to make do with showing kids the vines I have of my necklace), in order to make sure anyone who’s interested has access to all the stuff they’d been using.

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