Junior University

Jack Simpson

Head of Marketing and Communications

So it goes

A few weeks ago I finished a 6- week stint at Stanley Road Primary school in Chadderton, Oldham as part of the Junior University program. Since then I’ve wanted to share honestly about how it went, and what I think the children gained from the whole experience. Since this is my first blog, I thought I’d start with a little background info on me.

My role at Web Applications is as the Training Manager (more on what that involves can be found here). I’ve always had a strong interest in education following a 6-month stint as a Network Technician at The Blue Coat School, Oldham, where I quickly learnt that networks run themselves (the Web Apps Network Technicians my beg to differ – no offense!), so there really wasn’t much to do.

So while trying to prevent the children stealing the mouse balls (in the end I resorted to glue!), I began floating around the classrooms helping the children with their IT-related work. I then started to realise how rewarding it can be to teach others, especially children (admittedly, this didn’t include explaining for the tenth time why, when something doesn’t print we don’t just keep clicking ‘Print’ until it does).

A few career twists and turns later, I found myself at Web Applications and Stanley Road Primary School.

Those of you who have read Melanie’s weekly blog will already be familiar with the format. We spent six 1-hour sessions with a group of 14 children (aged from 8 to 10 years old) over 6 weeks. The first week was based in the Web Applications offices in Oldham and the remaining 5 weeks were spent in the ICT suite of the school. The objective was to introduce the children to some of the foundations of software engineering i.e. binary, logic, conditionality and cryptology.

When I was approached to do this by our Chief Executive Craig Dean, my initial reaction was one of slight panic. Actually scrub that, I said I wanted to be honest – I was terrified. The idea of standing up and teaching in front of a classroom of children and their professional teacher scared me…a lot (I should point out at this stage that I come from a family of primary school teachers and trust me, there are reasons to be scared!). The thought of then trying to teach those children something fairly abstract like binary scared me even further – how on earth can I make binary engaging and relevant to a bunch of 8 to 10 year olds?!

After much research (in others words, typing “teach binary to children” into Google), I came across this lesson plan that utilises the Socratic method, which focuses on teaching by asking questions. After doing a trial run on my 8-year-old niece, I was ready and confident that I had something that could hold the children’s attention and that they would ‘get’.

The binary lesson went well and the benefits of the Socratic method were obvious – rather than me talking contently about a very abstract subject (at least to children it is), it encouraged the children to think about the answer they’d just given, and why it might be wrong (the most common wrong answer being that 10 is ten, when in binary it is actually two). Since I would throw a question back at them whenever they gave me a wrong answer (e.g. “do we have a number ten in binary?”), it immediately gave them a chance to re-think and take another step towards to right answer. It also allowed the children to get involved and speak up. Ultimately, this was far more engaging than me simply saying “10 is two, we don’t have a number 10 in binary because…blah blah blah zzzz zzzz zzzz”.

Over the next few weeks, we tackled logic tables and cryptology, utilising the same methods throughout with a similar positive response. However, each week was tinged with some disappointment as it was clear some of the kids hadn’t quite picked it up as well as others. But it alsobecame clear that the lessons weren’t meeting the children’s prior expectations. They had anticipated playing on the computers every week and the first lesson at our offices (which involved them playing with, amongst other things, Microsoft Lync) had only heightened this. However, the importance of thinking things through with your head before tapping away with your fingers is something that we constantly drum into our Developers at Web Applications (we want Developers, not code-monkeys!) and I felt this was equally important for teaching the children.

The final week was ‘competition week’, where we split the children into teams and they competed to encrypt and decrypt different words. This was a huge success and the children were more excited than I’d seen them since Week 1 (helped by the prizes on offer!). At times it was just pure chaos and I was glad to have Melanie and Naomi as my wing men (or women).

The feedback given by the children at the end was exactly what I’d expected – there favourite weeks were Week 1 at the office, and Week 6: the competition. They were the most interactive, but also the least attention-demanding, they were just about having fun. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, they’re kids after all. Ultimately, my objective was to teach them about the foundations of software engineering by planting a few seeds of knowledge, even if they didn’t quite understand the relevance at the time. Hopefully one day they’ll have the opportunity to study further in a more formal way and they may just pick it up a little easier thanks to what they learnt in these lessons.

One or two may even join our team at Web Apps one day. Here’s hoping!