Computing Profession

The Benefits of Public Engagement

Judy Robertson

I spent the week running a teacher training workshop to help teachers start computer game authoring projects in their class. It was hugely tiring, but also hugely satisfying. I’m hoping to see it pay off over the next year or so in terms of their high school students’ motivation and interest in computer science.

This project, Making Games in Schools, is funded by EPSRC (a UK research council) for 18 months. We will train 32 teachers who in turn will teach over 2000 students, resulting in ~12000 hours of quality computer science learning. EPSRC have a great scheme called Partnerships for Public Engagement which funds researchers to disseminate their research work to the public, whether in schools, or at science festivals or even shopping malls. Proposals to this scheme are evaluated under different criteria from their research proposals: they take the impact of your contribution to society seriously and give you a mentor with experience in science communication to help you along the way. I’m really pleased to have this opportunity because it has a range of benefits, for my research, for my students, for teachers and kids in my area, and also it gives something back to the proverbial taxpayer, who after all fund me in research activities which are often obscure to most of the population.

The benefits for the teachers who get to come on the free 2.5 day training course is that they have time and space to develop their own learning. They don’t often get to escape from the classroom, or have time to spend learning new things themselves. The experience of being a learner again is incredily valuable for them, giving them new empathy for their pupils who are struggling. One the project is up and running, they have the fun of an exciting project which their students really love.

From the kids’ point of view, they get to work on a project in school which is relevant to the popular culture which they value, and which is open ended and creative. They learn difficult material in a fun setting and gain confidence from solving challenging problems which they set for themselves.

A team of my university students are involved as classroom helpers. They will visit a classroom weekly for the length of the project to give technical support to the teachers and meet the kids. This is great chance for them to pick up those transferrable skills which we are always going on about and to transmit their enthusiasm for their subject to younger people. Because we have a range of different sorts of schools in different areas involved, including primary, secondary and schools for special needs, they will widen their horizons. I am particularly proud of one of my students who has volunteered to work with children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, some of whom attend school in a secure unit.

Career researchers might snort at this point, and say "All very well, but you’ll kill your research time if you waste your effort on this stuff". The beauty of it is that all the time the project runs, I gather more and more data with very little additional effort. The teachers get their pupils to fill in attitudinal questionaires and tests of their computing knowledge. The student ambassadors gather copies of the children’s games for me to analyse later. The software which the kids use logs all their interface actions ready for my scripts to analyse as a batch and validate a stage model of creativity I have developed. This is the really exciting bit for me – I can now use this data to understand in-depth the learning behaviour of 2000 kids from the comfort of my Eclipse window. (I will visit actual kids from time to time too!). Hours and hours of data, screens of gorgeous graphs, and a satisfying set of statistics. What more could a geeky researcher like me want?

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