Inspire your pupils with real-world coding challenges (sponsored)

How to make coding fun and relevant to get your students engaged in Stem during the Year of Engineering

Siobhan Morgan

Engage pupils with coding by bringing it into the real world

Last week marked another successful National Coding Week, with events being held in schools, libraries and businesses up and down the country. With the initiative aiming to increase confidence and promote new skills across all ages and abilities, it isn’t just those new to coding who took part. The initiative is fully embraced at a number of workplaces, including at GCHQ, where many of the staff already volunteer to run sessions for children as part of the Code Club network. Additionally, they held a robot programming competition for their intelligence partners to help them focus on learning new coding skills, highlighting the importance of learning coding in their field and showing that you are never too old to try something new. 

With plenty of experts showing how keen they are to share their knowledge and enthusiasm in this topic, and with so many exciting resources being shared, why not get your pupils beginning something new on their coding journey today? Placing a focus on coding in the real world is a great way to engage students. And with plenty of resources and inspiration available, this could be the perfect motivation to help your pupils recognise the real-world application of coding that is so often missing.

Solving urban problems through coding

The Institute of Imagination, LEGO® and LEGO® Education all champion the importance of imagination and creativity, and the idea that imagination promotes innovation and helps to provide children with the skills needed to shape the future. So it’s unsurprising they’ve joined forces to provide inspirational opportunities to get children involved and excited about Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths). For nine- to 11-year-olds based in London, the RE:CODE events held at the Institute of Imagination are a partnership with the Mayor of London and LEGO® that uses the WeDo 2.0 robots to solve real-world problems that affect them locally. The challenges place coding and robotics in the real world and have included designing and building a robot to solve issues such as scooping up the debris in the River Thames or tackling air pollution in the city. The award-winning initiative is all about hands-on learning alongside the mayor’s London Curriculum, which uses the capital as inspiration to bring the national curriculum to life.

Challenges that are out of this world

For pupils outside London, there are plenty of other opportunities and challenges. This year’s FIRST LEGO® League and FIRST LEGO® League Jr competitions ("Mission Moon" and "Into Orbit") take the concept of using coding to solve real-world problems to a new level by placing those problems in space.

Raspberry Pi’s Astro Pi challenges give pupils the opportunity to write code to run on the International Space Station. With two levels of challenge, it’s suitable for a large age range. With Mission Zero guaranteeing your code to run for 30 seconds and Mission Space Lab running your pupils’ program for two orbits, it’s hard for your pupils not to feel inspired when they write code that runs in space.

Role models in Stem

As teachers, we spend a lot of time looking for role models to inspire our pupils. Yet outdated or out-of-reach names are often put to us as STEM heroes to promote to our pupils, when really they need to hear about people who are relatable and accessible to them. Joshua Lowe and Lorraine Underwood are two such role models. Both speak about failure and learning from those failures in their work, which is so important for young people starting on their Stem journey.

Joshua Lowe is a 14-year-old who created programming software with the sole aim of making coding more accessible to younger children. He wanted both children and teachers to be able to program in the Python language so he developed software, Edublocks, that turned the Python language into Scratch-like blocks that his target audience would be more familiar with.

His software is now used in over 75 countries around the world and can be used with the Micro:bit and Raspberry Pi. Lowe regularly runs workshops and provides CPD for teachers, and has been recognised with a John Pinner Award for his contribution to the Python community and was a 2017 BT Young Pioneer finalist.

BFG dream jars

Lorraine Underwood describes herself as a "maker", and as well as being a teacher and regional Lancaster CAS coordinator, she organises her local Raspberry Jam, is a Code Club volunteer and a Code First: Girls instructor. She has developed her expertise with Micro:bits and Raspberry Pis to create some amazing innovations. BFG dream jars, Power Ranger swords, Sorting Hats and Twitter-programmable light-up shoes would be enough to inspire even those pupils least engaged by Stem.

However, Lorraine’s projects get even more impressive. She programmed her staircase to light up in different colours according to the outside temperature, creating an impressive array of rainbow-coloured lights.

One of her most recent and impressive projects is Cubert, her 8x8x8 cube built from 512 ping pong balls and 512 RGB LEDs. Cubert can be programmed using the Micro:bit, the Makecode blocks or the Raspberry Pi, making programming the cube accessible to all ages. It’s programmed to play 3D Snake, simulate falling rain and to be controlled by Twitter. For those pupils enjoying programming but not necessarily seeing a link to its real-world application, Lorraine’s projects are bound to help your pupils make that connection.

Another great way to inspire pupils is to show them winning entries from competitions they could enter. A recent FIRST LEGO® League team created a medivest that measures vital signs and can indicate significant changes to the wearer of the vest. Now the team has set up a company and their product is undergoing medical trials.

Create your very own weather station

Raspberry Pi-inspired enthusiasts run Raspberry Jams around the country, where people of all ages can come together and tinker with this technology. For a fun and challenging Stem project, get your pupils involved in monitoring the weather using code they have programmed and equipment they’ve built themselves. The Raspberry Pi Foundation provides weather station kits to schools, as part of a project to gather weather data by utilising the many sensors compatible with the Raspberry Pi.

Making a weather station is a great way to learn about sensors and to collect real-world data, and is an ideal project to link to other curriculum areas. My pupils always find learning about the weather from their own data much more fun than reading data from a webpage. There are guides online to help you build a weather station and kits to buy for both the Raspberry Pi and the Micro:bit.

Real-world contexts with Micro:bits and MINDSTORMS

The IET (Institution of Engineering and Technology) provides a range of projects to be used with Micro:bits that are ideal for using in class. They provide free resources to support pupils in building projects that are purposeful and relevant to them and their lives, such as home security devices, energy-use monitors and devices to control lighting.

The real-world context continues in the Tomorrow’s Engineers’ competition. The main challenge is a LEGO® MINDSTORMS® robot competition for key stage 3 pupils, but there’s also a series of additional "micro challenges" that enable teams to gain more points. These ask pupils to find a solution, using their robot, for a series of real-world problems, including dealing with the aftermath of an earthquake by delivering aid or detecting a parcel in the rubble, for example.

Connect with local Stem Ambassadors

Whether you are confident at teaching coding or require some support, tapping into the Stem Ambassadors network could help bring the subject to life. Stem Ambassadors are an invaluable, free resource – volunteers who support schools, work alongside teachers, promote Stem careers and can provide activities for your pupils. With a wide range of skills, offerings from these inspirational volunteers are varied but you are bound to find individuals who are willing to share their love of Stem with your pupils. In North Devon, one Stem Ambassador is working alongside local primary schools to start a robotics competition. Elsewhere, LEGO® provides Stem Ambassadors with LEGO® WeDo kits and training to support the volunteers in developing coding in schools across the country.

With so many choices of competitions, resources and support available, it’s easy to tailor your approach and try a variety of ideas to link with the curriculum or as a theme for a Stem club. When pupils can engage with the real-life examples designed by accessible people in a playful and imaginative way, the more they will be inspired to have a go themselves. 

Activities absolutely must be fun and highly interesting – if they’re not, the kids will switch off. 

Siobhán Morgan leads computer science at Exeter Junior School and is a CAS Master Teacher. She tweets at @koduclassroom

Siobhan Morgan

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