'It was 50 per cent fun, 50 per cent interesting'

22nd May 2009 at 01:00
The wonders of robots and what computers can do held a class of P6 pupils entranced

It was just as Liam had warned. Instead of following him around, the small Lego-like model shied away from him in hesitant little jumps.

"Something went wrong," he said, looking bemused. "It's going the wrong way. It was supposed to follow us."

The rest of his P6 class from Bruntsfield Primary in Edinburgh didn't mind. Laughing, they crowded round the diminutive robot keen to make it do what it was told. After a few more minutes, it was whisked away safely by Morna Findlay, schools liaison officer at the informatics department of Edinburgh University, and the rest of the pupils were called on to demonstrate what their robots could do.

One walked in an exact square, another knocked over walls of juice cartons, quite a few spun on the spot and called out funny messages. Each had been programmed by the children in groups of four, helped by a researcher from the university, during an afternoon workshop showing them the wonders of computers. The workshop had cost the school nothing and even included a snack.

"It's been wonderful," says Kate Hanson, P6 teacher and Bruntsfield's maths and science co-ordinator. "It fits right in with Curriculum for Excellence, because of the team skills and co-ordinated development. It is integrating all aspects of their learning in such an imaginative way. And to follow it up with drawing is spot on."

She jumped at the chance to give pupils an insider's look at what is happening in informatics, which covers computer science, cognitive science, computational linguistics and artificial intelligence. Last year, she took them to a neuroscience workshop, which she described as fabulous. "The children got to hold real human brains, with gloves on. It was an incredible learning experience," she enthuses. "Next term, our technology topic is to design and program a device to remove toxic waste spillage. To actually program real robots has been great preparation for them. You can see how engaged they were."

Edinburgh University is proud of its informatics department. According to Ms Findlay, it is fourth in the world in the study of computers, first in the area of postgraduate research. Ms Findlay's job is recruitment, to find the best and persuade them to come to Edinburgh. But within that remit, she has responsibility to reach out to all schools across Scotland and reveal to them the wonders of computers and programming. It is why she slants her workshops and demonstrations to showing the positive side of computers rather than just the university.

"A lot of the pupils I see won't be able to come to Edinburgh and Edinburgh won't suit a lot of young people, so I always talk in general terms," she explains. "I want them to see the future of computers and how exciting it is."

The pupils from Bruntsfield looked pretty excited. For nearly two hours they sat huddled round computers, deciding what they wanted it to do and discussing how to achieve it. "It was 100 per cent fun," declares Juilet Storey.

"Fifty per cent fun, 50 per cent interesting," adds Leah Webster.

Ms Findlay doesn't limit herself to just Edinburgh. "Schools just need to ask, and I'll take the equipment in my car."

And, even better, all workshops are funded by the university.

www.info.ed.ac.ukoutreachschools.

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