Thursday, June 5, 2008

CS Unplugged

"Teach computer science... without a computer!"

CS Unplugged's home page tag line pretty much sums up the New Zealand-based project. I first encountered CS Unplugged on reddit, and got hooked from there. I had wondered if I'd be able to use any of the activities in my mini-course. In the end, I used no less than three of them!

The activities cover a fairly wide range of fundamental computer science concepts. The best part about them, though, is the head fake (if I may borrow Randy Pausch's term). You get kids to play these fun games or lead some zany discussions, so they're pretty much just having fun while learning (or at least being exposed to) some pretty tough concepts. True, some of the more keen students might ask, "So, what does this have to do with computers again?" But all is revealed in the end.

A great example is the activity on Finite State Automata, which I used during the artificial intelligence section of the mini-course. Several kids act as islands, and get printed cards that indicate where a ship may go. There are always two choices: choice A and choice B. The rest of the students start at the first island, and ask to travel along one of these choices. Their goal is to reach treasure island, while writing down the path(s) they used to get there. After everyone has had the opportunity to try it, the class can compare their maps and discuss what patterns of A's and B's can be used to get from start to finish. So while they think they're just going on a treasure hunt, they really just learned about how to find examples of accepted strings to finite state machines. Pretty cool eh?

I also tried the Human Computer Interaction and Turing Test activities during the mini-course. It was a bit harder to convince them of the relevance of the Chocolate Factory design discussion for HCI, but they seemed to enjoy these as well. If nothing else, they had some really good discussions about the topics, so perhaps they'll see the connection to computer science better later on and look back on their experience here.

You can see some of the events from around the world that used CS Unplugged material on this Google Map. My mini-course is on there - see if you can find it! I hope, in the near future, to be able to add more events to this map. In particular, our Women in Science and Engineering group hopes to work on some outreach programs for pre-university girls, so there's a huge opportunity to incorporate a few key CS Unplugged activities.


Chris said...

That sounds like a great approach to education. I like seeing such innovative techniques embraced by the education community. It does remind me a bit of Niel Stephenson's book "Diamond Age: Or a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer".

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated - please be patient while I approve yours.