Skills for the future: learning from the past

Author: Alistair Grant
Posted: 24 Oct 2014 | 09:27

Getting young people interested in science, hopefully with a long term view to getting them involved in future science or science-influenced careers, is an important part of doing public outreach. EPCC has being doing this for a little while now, but we are still finding our feet. A lot of our contacts with schools come through personal contacts or connections with children in the school. St Marys Primary, which my eldest niece attends, was keen to have family members of pupils talk about what they do and the subjects they are involved with in a 'Skills for the Future' week. This was a great opportunity to help the school using some of the exhibits we have already got and some new activities being worked on. 

So on October 8th 2014, I went back to school to talk to two classes about computing, supercomputing and why it is useful. Our outreach work is based around introducing some of the core principles of programming and computing, including algorithms and problem solving, and showing how these connect to supercomputers and science being undertaken on them. For about an hour in each class, I experimented a little as a presenter with some slightly different material but using our dinosaur simulator and a XT4 blade as two exhibits, coupled with a talk about how computers can be used. 

Importantly though, a talk in itself can be a bit boring, you have to engage with the audience, get them to do things. So there were a lot of questions asked of the audience, chances for them to try and work things out and a lot of questions from them which I had to try and answer without tripping over myself (needless to say, some questions and answers were the source of some mirth).

So what did the classes have to undergo? The basic ideas of computing and scientific computing were introduced, why we use them, how they help us to achieve more but importantly that the intelligence is still in the person doing the work - every computer, no matter how big, is still just a tool. We moved on from the introductions to looking at how a desktop and a supercomputer are made up of lots of different components - but share a lot of the same things. For many of the children, this was likely the first time that many of them had been able to have a look inside such devices and get their questions answered.

Then came some harder stuff for them to do - I started to introduce binary numbers. I began with dragons and warning fires after reading some inspirational material on how to present ideas to wider audiences (and yes these take a fantastical element as well, dragons and fires crop up a lot in some places). But while the setting may have been fictional, the idea of counting in base 2 and representing the numbers as ones and zeroes was picked up by the school pupils.


Roman in the Snow (Lego)


One of the classes is doing a project on the Romans, which allowed me to introduce a basic idea of cryptography using a shift cipher. In the modern day, shift ciphers are easy to break using frequency analysis or just plain brute force but it did highlight how computers have changed things and how cryptography has changed. The example I used was a simple message sent by a general to his frontline commanders - telling them what to do. The pupils picked this up and linking it to what they had already been studying helped them link to existing knowledge (a key part of helping retention).

We finished off each class with dinosaur races projected onto smart boards. The enthusiasm for this even after almost an hour was impressive and the realisation that you could build a faulty dinosaur that would fall over and lose stoked the competitive elements of some pupils.

Reflecting on the experience, I realised that while we introduced a lot of technology, new techniques and ideas - we often use examples from the past to illustrate our points and how they can be built on to improve the future. I hope that I have helped the school - the feedback I received was positive and the pupils looked as though they enjoyed the experience.

Image (Dragon): Conrado PLG

Image (Roman Lego):  Franckfbe

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