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Opinion8th June 2017

How to master computer science in the classroom

Cat Lamin is a former primary school teacher and Education Outreach Champion at pi-top. The organisation is behind the modular pi-top laptop that you build yourself. It’s a useful tool to help pupils start learning how to code, create devices, and take their knowledge to the next level.

Up until 2014, my entire goal in life was to be a successful primary school teacher. But a couple of years ago I decided to leave the classroom to become an independent consultant, sharing my knowledge and understanding of computer science with other teachers. Why? Well, since the new national curriculum for computer science was introduced in 2014, a lot of teachers have been faced with quite a daunting task. They are being asked to understand and teach computing and coding to their pupils, despite many having no background or specialisms in the subject.

I met pi-top co-founder Jesse Lozano at a Raspberry Pi event, and joined as a consultant shortly afterwards. A pi-top is a DIY laptop to help people who are learning how to code. By building it yourself, you learn the basic architecture of the computer. My role at the organisation is to enthuse teachers about using Raspberry Pi microcomputers and pi-top in their classroom as well as to ensure that pi-top is creating software that can help teachers to get the most out of their computer science lessons.

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We’re making computer science more accessible to teachers. We offer pi-topCODER which includes a set of lesson plans that can easily be followed by teachers. You just need to download pi-topOS, put it on an SD card and run it on your Raspberry Pi. We encourage collaboration between teachers, so the worksheets are created by educators from all over the world. Teachers can learn to code, create hardware, track their progress and test their code in real time.

Start with something really simple. If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, just take some time and have a play. We have a worksheet called Traffic Lights on pi-topCODER that’s great fun and helps you to become familiar with the basics. In the real world, programmers don’t work alone. They collaborate and tweak. You need to get familiar with the code, and then comfortable enough to make changes and improve.

Whether you have access to pi-top or not in your schools, the key thing when you’re getting started is don’t expect to know everything. In this digital age, some children are learning by themselves via the internet, and your pupils may know more than you do. I even had a year 4 pupil who knew how to code javascript – he had picked this up from his dad! If your kids are getting so excited about the subject that they are off researching it by themselves, then you’ve done a good job. And if you do have students that are much more advanced, make use of them – ask them to support others in the class.

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It’s all about making learning fun and engaging. When teaching children how to code & build hardware, you can do some really fun things. And it’s empowering for them too. One great example was getting children to write code that went into space – astronaut Tim Peake took some Raspberry Pis to the International Space Station, so that students could send their apps and experiments directly to him. The possibilities really are endless.

There’s so much opportunity for cross-curricular learning, especially in STEM subjects. Just like technology is embedded in our everyday lives, we should be looking for ways to interact across the curriculum. Maths is an obvious partner, but there’s other subjects that you can link up as well. For instance, thanks to some training by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, schools are sending a hot air balloon out into near space and tracking its flight path, blending geography with computer science. Perhaps you could ask students to write a story or do a painting of outer space. For P.E., your students could create a monitor to check their heart rate after exercising. One group of Raspberry Pi enthusiasts at London Zoo have even created a wildlife camera which detects motion and heat, so anyone can find out about animals visiting their garden or playground!

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You can find answers to some of your more challenging questions from experts on Twitter, or via blogs. Some great accounts to follow are @MissPhilbin, @GetPiTop, @Raspberry_Pi and of course, I have to recommend my own account, @CatLamin!

Ark works in partnership with pi-top to run free CPD events for teachers. You can sign up to hear more about our programme of events here:

Visit the website to find out more about pi-top: