open lab blog
Rainbows, robots and research - primary school children visit Open Lab for Enterprise Week
As part of the Enterprise Week event late May, Open Lab hosted 347 Year-5 students from eight different schools around Newcastle. This was the third year running Open Lab has hosted Enterprise Week events.
This year, we introduced students to the broad range of academics, researchers and professional service staff that constitutes the Open Lab by getting our designers, academics and admin team to present a bit about their jobs in the lecture hall, here in the Urban Sciences Building.
The students then completed a design exercise in response to the talks, where they were encouraged to create their own human-computer interaction (HCI) technology. The major focus of the day, though, was coding using BBC micro:bits. Students used visual programming blocks to turn on a light strip (NeoPixels) in a variety of ways: straight, flashing or changing colours, and even rainbow lights.
For those that don’t know, Enterprise Week is an opportunity for the eight primary schools which constitute the WEST (West End Schools Trust) to visit various locations and businesses, including museums and universities, as well as hosting their own talks, in order to raise aspirations.
According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), young people in the North East region are the least likely group to access higher education.
Nevertheless, this can all change if kids have meaningful encounters with professionals such as university lecturers, researchers, engineers and support staff as studies show.
These encounters reduces the chances of being NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training), raises educational and professional aspirations, and increases future salary earnings (up to 16.4% more than their peers).
“That’s why we continue to partner with the WEST schools and we are delighted to host these kids every year,” said Dr. Ahmed Kharrufa, a lecturer and lead researcher of Education Theme in Open Lab, one of the main research labs in the School of Computing at Newcastle University.
“One of the key themes of our research in Open Lab is that of bridging the gap between schools and community and exploring the role of technology as an infrastructure that allows schools to make better use of the resources that their communities have to offer.
We view the university as an invaluable resource for the schools in the region with the School of Computing and particularly Open Lab, due to its community facing research vision, as being able to play a significant role in raising students’ academic and professional aspirations.
As such, the Enterprise Week is a fantastic opportunity for students to experience the range of activities and work opportunities that exist in universities in general, and in the field of computing, beyond the narrow views of white collar researchers, lecturers, students, (and coders in the case of computing) that students develop in schools and from mainstream media,” he added.
Presentations About Roles: Who Does What at Open Lab and at the university?
Most of the students that visited us had some idea what a university is, but not what it does. Most had never visited before, much less met academics, and some students remarked that they had never met someone who had attended university.
As the students arrived in groups of about 60 at a time, they were greeted by one of the lecturers in Open Lab, either Dr. Ahmed Kharrufa or Dr. Jan Smeddinck.
Students had to guess the research areas in the School of Computing from the images provided: cybersecurity from the “padlock”, HCI from “human hand touching robot hand”.
In one session, Dr. Kharrufa needed to ease(!) worries that some students had about robot uprising, after showing himself presenting a conference talk remotely via a robot (mobile screen) — more about this later.
Open Lab admin staff talked about their role in helping the research team stay successful and productive.
Then our designer/engineer Dan Jackson fascinated the students with the demos of how human needs drove the design and production of smart and interactive gadgets and games. This was followed by doctoral students and research associates giving them a quick overview of their research at Open Lab.
Also, as were being visited by a user experience and research group from Purdue University this year, we were lucky to give the students an international perspective, with Austin Toombs and Colin Gray talking to the students about their own career path into academia.
For example, before becoming an academic, Austin wanted to be a professional tap-dancer.
Getting the international perspective was “especially interesting for our children to see how far travelled some of you and your colleagues are,” one of the participating teachers reflected after the event.
Design Your Own HCI Technology
After the presentations, students were given materials and prompts to encourage them to think about the different ways technology can be used to help people in their day-to-day lives, based on the example technologies we develop in Open Lab.
Some children designed technologies catering to very specific issues, while others chose a more broad approach, and some adapted existing technologies in imaginative ways.
They varied from the weird and wonderful (like Firey Red Guy 7000 2.0 – a teleportation device, with rockets) to more day-to-day helpers for chores (like Boldy Bob’s Doors – a door cleaning robot).
We saw a wide variety of fantastic designs from students – homework solvers, revolutionary gaming systems and teleportation and time-travel devices. The kids wanted to help a broad range of people from young people to old people, to helping their mums around the house.
We brought to life our three favourite designs.
We’ve kept all the designs anonymous, but if you see your design – CONGRATULATIONS!
Micro:bit Activity: Program Neo-Pixel Lights
We used BBC micro:bits as a way to introduce students to basic computer programming.
But before that, we asked what students consider as computers: a laptop, a desktop, a tablet, a smartphone, a Raspberry Pi board, a micro:bit board, a human.
A lot of the students were able to identify and define computers as “tools that do jobs”, with one student remarking that it is “a machine that uses binary to carry out functions” – very impressive!
Micro:bits are small open-source computers, similar to Arduinos or Raspberry Pi’s, and have accelerometer and magnetometer sensors, an LED display, programmable buttons as well as inputs and outputs like Bluetooth and connectors.
We have already done a lot of work using BBC micro:bits. We led students through three stages during this exercise: introducing them to micro:bit computers, introducing them to the visual coding language, and introducing them to software-controlled hardware (NeoPixel).
Students were then tasked with using the micro:bit to control a light strip, to make it change colour, oscillate between colours, or to show a rainbow of colors. The students were very engaged at this point, partly thanks to seeing the outcome of their coding immediately on the light strips.
For a lot of students this is the groundwork for them becoming the coders and programmers of the future.
In fact, being a programmer was the second most selected choice (14%) when we asked students what they wanted to become after each session, having heard about different roles, designed their own technology, and programmed lights with micro:bits.
First and third job choices were designer (27%) and engineer (12%), which we call the Dan Jackson effect!
We can’t wait to see these students at our school in eight years. Interestingly, 105 students had aspirations to become something else, including but not limited to doctors, lawyers, teachers, boxers and footballers.
As expected, the coding activity was the most engaging activity of the day; 87% of the students rated it as “exciting”.
Even those students who have prior experience with block programming or micro:bits found the activity engaging; as one of the teachers put it: “the children totally enjoyed the micro:bits, especially all the dancing lights. They are familiar with scratch and it was lovely to see them apply some of their block coding knowledge to this challenge.”
Speaking of the future…
Open Lab doesn’t have all the answers, and it was difficult to answer this question poised by one of the students: will there be a robot uprising?
We’re interested in how technology and HCI can help people, not programming the next Terminator or HAL 9000.
At Open Lab, we are always looking to develop innovative ways and new technologies to help bridge the gap between people and technology – and within the educational technology theme, how technology can be used to bridge the gap between schools and communities.
“Events like Enterprise Week allow us to bridge this gap and reach students directly at an early age so that they can design and shape the future technology and deal with the shifting employment landscape” Dr. Kharrufa stated regarding the partnership with local communities.
And this was well-received by the teachers, who spent the most time with these students. As one teacher noted: “We really did have a lovely time and drip fed a little aspiration into a lot of our children.”
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