Professor Tim Bell

Professor Tim Bell– UC Innovation Medal Winner

Unplugging computer science

Having to find an engaging way to explain the underlying concepts of computer science to a classroom of five-year-olds provided a University of Canterbury academic with a platform for a novel teaching tool that has taken the computing education world by storm.

UC computer scientist Professor Tim Bell, working with fellow computer scientists Mike Fellows from Charles Darwin University in Australia and Ian Witten of Waikato University, is one of the brains behind the successful Computer Science Unplugged programme which has developed an international following among mathematics and computer science educators since it was launched in the early 1990s.

Providing teachers with a range of activities (games, stories, puzzles, tricks and videos), the Unplugged programme introduces learners to computer science in a way that is fun and engaging, all without a computer having to be in the room. The programme, and its associated book, have so far been translated into 18 languages and are now used in schools and universities worldwide.

Since its launch, Bell has travelled the world promoting Unplugged and helping schools and universities effectively include the teaching tool in their learning programmes. His efforts have not gone unnoticed, with Zurich’s ETH (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule) University recently awarding him a prestigious medal for his services to computer science education, and internet giant Google providing support for his outreach work and funding for further development of Unplugged material.

In 2012, Bell also received the 2011 University of Canterbury’s Innovation Medal, one of the University’s highest honours. It is awarded by the University Council in recognition of excellence in transforming knowledge or ideas so they are adopted by the wider community.

Bell says receiving awards for something he loves doing “is kind of weird” but he is passionate about Computer Science Unplugged and the programme’s underlying goal — to help people understand what computer science is and find out if they have a passion for it.

“I’ve always been interested in finding more engaging ways of communicating computer science ideas but I think it was having children and seeing what the other sciences were doing in terms of communicating their concepts that really got me thinking. Part of the problem is that people don’t really understand what computer science is whereas it’s fairly easy to understand what the other sciences are all about.

“When people think about computer science they often equate it with programming, but it’s a lot more than that, and it’s how to communicate this that got me thinking. So, Unplugged is partly about communicating what computer science really is and partly about getting people involved who might not otherwise have been interested.” Bell, a University of Canterbury graduate, began working on Unplugged in 1989 when he developed computer science exhibits for an initiative that eventually became Christchurch’s science centre, Science Alive.

“It took a new direction in 1992 when I was asked to explain computer science to my then five-year old’s class at school. I developed some novel ways to communicate to the students using games, tricks and puzzles to get to the heart of computer science without the distraction of using a computer.

“I like finding things that people say are impossible, then coming up with a solution. There was nothing exciting I could do on a computer that would be interesting for five-year olds, so what if there were no computers? I gave myself that challenge and it forced me to think outside the box.

“Since then, and through collaboration with many colleagues around the world, using Computer Science Unplugged as a way to teach has become well-known in the world of computer science education.”

Unplugged came together when, while visiting an online newsgroup, Bell met Fellows who was working on similar ideas in the United States. The two eventually compiled the first edition of the Computer Science Unplugged book, with help from Witten. Rejected by 27 publishers — Bell says the feedback was generally very positive but the problem was that it didn’t fit neatly into either the education or computing genres — the trio made it available online for free. Interest in the Unplugged material took off when, in 2003, activities featured in the Unplugged programme were included in the Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM) proposed computer science “K-12” curriculum (for children from kindergarten to senior high school levels). The ACM, based in the United States, is the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society.

“Suddenly, we were being recommended by a major international organisation and we were being contacted by people from around the world,” says Bell.

“It also became linked to the Computer Science for High Schools programme (CS4HS), which is sponsored by Google and, as a consequence, Google decided to sponsor Unplugged and gave us funding to improve our website, make more videos and run workshops for teachers.” He says Unplugged is designed to physically engage learners with the concepts of computer science, as well as allow for discussion and exploration.

“It’s all about empowering students to explore computer science in an easy and fun way. But it’s not a replacement for how computer science is taught now — we see it as a supplement, adding spice to people’s teaching of what can sometimes be perceived as a dry subject.”

Unplugged isn’t the only large education project Bell has been involved in. He has worked on the development of the New Zealand computer science curriculum. The subject was first introduced to schools in 2011 and Bell travelled the country training teachers and helping them get their heads around the subject.

Again, Google provided sponsorship for teacher training. The culmination of Bell’s work is an online “untextbook”, or field guide, for students and teachers.

“New Zealand is well ahead of much of the world in introducing computer science to schools but teachers need a lot of support because it’s a new topic. The online field guide will include all the things that need to be taught and how they can be taught. It’s going to be very interactive because the challenge is how to get students to engage with computer science in a way that is meaningful to them.”

A beta release of the untextbook is already being used in schools and is available at www.cosc.canterbury.ac.nz/csfieldguide/.