Microsoft backs computer education for schools with $343k grant

Microsoft New Zealand has provided a grant of $343,000 to Professor Tim Bell

Microsoft New Zealand has provided a grant of $343,000 to Professor Tim Bell of the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering at the University of Canterbury to further develop a scheme for teaching computer science that he first devised over 20 years ago and that has since been widely adopted around the world.

The Computer Science Unplugged project is billed as “a collection of free learning activities that teach computer science through engaging games and puzzles that use cards, string, crayons and physical activity… [introducing] students to computational thinking through concepts such as binary numbers, algorithms and data compression but separated from the distractions and technical details of having to use computers.”

It was developed by Bell in collaboration with colleagues at other universities. According to Microsoft, it has been translated into 20 languages and has developed a strong following around the world as an extension and outreach program for classrooms and science centres.

The material is claimed to be suitable for people of all ages and backgrounds, from elementary school to seniors. It is available free of charge under a Creative Commons license, and also enjoys sponsorship from Google.

Microsoft says its ‘Youthspark’ grant will enable Professor Bell to refactor the material so it will have greater applicability and usability within schooling systems all around the world.

Bell said: “In its original form, CS Unplugged was designed for outreach and extension at a time when having the subject in the curriculum seemed unlikely. In the last few years many countries have realised the significance of the subject for their students, and have been working out how to get computer science topics into schools. While the CS Unplugged project has been a popular element of this, in its current form it needs some adaptation for use in the typical classroom.”

He plans to use the funding to convert CS Unplugged into unit plans and lesson plans for teachers, adding videos about how it can be used in the classroom, and providing clear links to ‘plugged in’ follow-up activities involving programming, so that it can be more easily used in the classroom setting.

Microsoft said the funding would also support a sister project, the Computer Science Field Guide, an online resource for teaching the subject to high school students. This will be expanded to cover more topics, and will include more multimedia and interactive elements to engage students.

Microsoft’s announcement coincided with the first visit to New Zealand by Microsoft’s global CEO Satya Nadella. He visited Freeman’s Bay School as the guest of Education Minister, Hekia Parata, to see how the school is using the CS Unplugged program.

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