Empowering Young Learners: Computing and Technology at Casterton, Sedbergh Prep School

Vic Thompson, the Head of Design, Technology & Engineering at Casterton, Sedbergh Prep School, is stumped when asked to give an example of when her young learners have blown her away with their creativity and aptitude in Design, Technology & Engineering (DTE) or Computer Science. Why? Because there are so many examples! Eventually, she settles on the extraordinary gifs that pupils designed using time-lapses in Adobe Photoshop.

Understandably, parental interest in their children learning about ‘technology’ and coding has grown significantly in recent years. When parents (and others) say ‘technology’ they are generally referring to a broad and diverse range of tools, techniques, systems, and processes that are used to solve problems and complete jobs. Technology encompasses both physical devices and software, as well as the knowledge and expertise required to create, operate, and maintain them.

Vic teaches pupils from Year 1 upwards and regularly meets with her colleagues in the Senior School to discuss what the Casterton pupils are achieving, in context of where the pupils will progress if they continue to our Senior School programme, “For example, we’ve talked about introducing our pupils earlier to binary systems to smooth understanding at the Senior School.”

She explains that Casterton uses the Purple Mash Computing Scheme, a comprehensive set of resources aligned to the National Curricula, as a general source, “We dovetail the Purple Mash scheme in with all of the different facilities that we’ve got. So, we’re using micro bits with extension packs – the micros are simply mini computers that pupils can code in either block coding (starting with Scratch) or using Python as they get older, but they have hardware extensions so you can have tracker lights and motors and things that they can control. We tailor our teaching to what we think our pupils are going to be most engaged with.”

What are the key skills and concepts that students gain from learning computer science and how do they apply to other STEM disciplines?

“There’s obviously problem solving and analysing briefs. So when you are given a task, for example in engineering, you’re given a design brief. It’s the same in computing. You need to achieve something. Problem solving, looking at the code and if it doesn’t work; testing, refining, developing. That’s all the same in engineering. Then you’ve got communicating. Another transferable skills, be it graphically or with your coding and your annotations is explaining for debugging and things like that.”

“I intentionally do cross discipline projects with computer science in Design Technology (DT) because I think it’s good that pupils see the real world product. So we’ve got things where in DT, for example circuits, pupils will do programing on the computers and also see what actually happens to the lights, the switches and all of the inputs and outputs. They can see and test something that’s 3D, not just something on the screen or discussion based – they can see it working. I think that’s one of the pulls, but it’s also one of the more challenging things. It’s got to function and you’ve just got to keep going until your program works for the specific area that you’re looking at. It’s challenging as well as engaging, it’s also where children really have to learn resilience.”

Are there any common misconceptions or barriers that students have when it comes to learning computer science?

“Oh yes – children think its too difficult. Coding, especially, sounds like it is difficult. I think pupils put it on a pedestal and they think about it as something that they can’t achieve, especially when it’s text-based coding. That’s why we start with the block based so that they’re dragging and dropping and getting used to the different variables and timers and things like that. So, pupils can see it working and see things happening with the simulators before they then go into having to learn the language.”

Core i5 Club

“The club, which runs at break times, was designed to give an enrichment experience of computing to Years 7 and 8. The club started by building computers from scratch. So, we got old machines and we wanted to show our pupils, okay, this is how you put it together. The first one we made used a Core i5 processor. So, that’s where the name of the club comes from.”

“We’ve then gone on to develop other projects. For instance, we built a flight simulator. To do that, we built essentially a gaming computer. So, the pupils had to spec out what they would need to get a flight simulator to run. Obviously you’ve got the huge amount of processor power that they’ve got, the graphics, so what’s going to run, how much memory do they need, what graphics power they need. Then we were sourcing parts from donations and borrowing things. The idea is not to just buy a brand new computer; anyone can do that. It was to switch things in to see what works, evaluate, test, and then build something better. It’s really just about getting pupils to code and build computers and engage in the different areas of development.”

“Our projects are always something that neither Steven Denton (IT Support) nor I have ever done before, so we’re always pushing boundaries. One of the things that we’re going to start on is machine learning to AI. We’re going to do that with quite a simple set of kit parts and see how far we can get!”

“I like coding because its fun and I’m good at it. I just naturally understand it.”

Freddy, Year 8
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