Teaching kids computer science: no computer required

Six girls outside a classroom learning computer science by using CS Unplugged
Using the CS Unplugged program, students can learn computer science through engaging games and puzzles that rely on cards, string, crayons and physical activity.

Every young person should have the opportunity to learn computer science skills and, by extension, gain a better understanding of how the technology works, since it will impact so many aspects of their lives. A grant announced today will help more youth get that opportunity.

Computational thinking is described by Jeannette M. Wing, corporate vice president at Microsoft Research, as the thought processes involved in formulating a problem and expressing solutions in a way that a computer – human or machine – can carry out. Wing, who also serves as the president’s professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote in Social Issues in Computing that computational thinking “will be a fundamental skill – just like reading, writing, and arithmetic – used by everyone by the middle of the 21st century.”

Yet not every young person has ready access to technology or the internet. In schools where technology is available, teachers don’t always have curriculum materials that make computational thinking easy and fun to teach. University of Canterbury Computer Science and Engineering Professor Tim Bell, in collaboration with colleagues at other universities, created an innovative solution for teaching computational thinking in these and other settings. CS Unplugged, available in about 20 languages and used by educators around the world, is a collection of free learning activities to teach core computer science concepts through engaging activities that use everyday items and interaction among youth to facilitate learning. The program’s games and puzzles use cards, string, crayons and physical activity – no technology required.

Professor Bell’s important work received a boost from Microsoft Philanthropies today: a Microsoft YouthSpark grant to continue to build and improve his CS Unplugged curriculum to have greater applicability and usability for nonprofit organizations and teachers all around the world.

“All youth should have a chance to learn problem-solving skills critical for today’s technology-driven world,” said Mary Snapp, corporate vice president and head of Microsoft Philanthropies. “CS Unplugged is especially useful in demonstrating core concepts in computer science and removes the barrier of technology access so that more young people can gain these important skills. We’re pleased to support Professor Bell and this work.”

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a school classroom in New Zealand with children learning computer science without computers.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who was in New Zealand this week, visited Freemans Bay School in Auckland to see how students at the school learn computer science with the CS Unplugged program.

New lesson plans will be developed, and new supplementary videos, made possible by this grant, will demonstrate how the material looks when used in a classroom. The material will include tips and explanations to help teachers understand computer science principles behind the activities and how to teach those to students. The material is suitable for people of all ages and backgrounds, from elementary school students to seniors, and will be available free of charge.

Today’s announcement coincided with the first visit to New Zealand by Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella, who visited Freemans Bay School as the guest of New Zealand Minister of Education Hon Hekia Parata to see how the school uses the CS Unplugged program. Reflecting a growing trend around the world, New Zealand will integrate a digital technologies focus into school curriculums in 2018. The grant will enable the modification of CS Unplugged to be fully integrated into school curricula, building on its initial function as extra content for classes.

CS Unplugged may be downloaded in a variety of languages at csunplugged.org. The new versions of the materials, made possible by today’s YouthSpark grant, will be published in the summer of 2017.

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