Robots, competitions, and extra-curricular opportunities

By Sway Grantham. Posted

Students from Giffard Park Primary School enjoyed visiting the University of Cambridge, as part of Pi Wars 2019

Originally published in Hello World Issue 9: Computing and the arts, July 2019. All information true at the time of original publishing.

Sway Grantham shares the joys of running a coding club for primary students and her experiences of taking the youngest team to Pi Wars 2019

Teaching is a hard job with lots of demands on your time. Extra-curricular activities can seem like another burden in a busy week. However, they are also an opportunity to work with your most inspired, engaged, and interested learners. I recently took seven primary pupils to Pi Wars, an annual robotics competition, as the culmination of an after-school club which had been running for three months. The competition involved children designing, building, and programming a robot to compete in seven space-themed challenges, with additional points awarded for blogging, artistic merit, and technical understanding. What they took away from this, however, was far more than ten hours’ of ‘extra computing lessons’.

Age is just a number

The British education system, for logistical reasons, puts a lot of emphasis on age. When you’re a year older, you learn the next year’s content and each child in the year will be the same age. This often gives children two misconceptions:

  1. Older children/adults will always know more than them on a topic;

  2. They’re ‘too young’ for some knowledge.

The children in my club are aged seven to eleven years old, all from different classes. Some had attended Pi Wars the previous year, others had not, yet they all supported each other throughout the club and the competition, and were the youngest team to enter. Yet, rather than being intimidated and put off, they loved having the opportunity to work with other people, talk to them about their projects, and learn together, even making some suggestions to older teams. Some of the children reported that their favourite part of the experience was how helpful the other teams were, and how happy they were to share ideas. 

Entering Pi Wars gave the children an opportunity to see that children of all ages could bring their own unique skills to the table. They were aware that you need to learn some things before others – we didn’t do sensors this year as we were focusing on a working robot – yet they acknowledged they could go on to learn this next. They also frequently suggested that ‘anyone could do it’, because there’s so much helpful content online. This is a very different attitude to that which you experience in school, where the teacher provides the knowledge and they define your next steps.

Students as young as seven said they enjoyed the challenge of Pi Wars and sharing ideas with other teams

There’s more to life than sport

Sport is a really important part of growing up. It offers children a space to develop their teamwork and communication skills, builds resilience, all whilst keeping them fit and healthy. Yet, nearly all schools have a huge imbalance in the extra-curricular and competitive opportunities offered in sport versus other areas. The children who attended Pi Wars spoke positively about getting an opportunity to compete and develop their skills in computing as being a more ‘unique’ opportunity, but one where they were also able to develop academically. Once pupil stated, “We usually do a physical challenge, but this time we are doing a mental or robotic challenge which gives us tons more experience.”

As a teacher, this opportunity for challenge is one aspect I love about running clubs. There are certain constraints on the type of projects you can do in a classroom due to curriculum coverage and managing 30 different children at a time, yet a club allows you this freedom. From attending one club, the children felt they’d had a ‘creative experience’ improving their art and design, design technology, and computing skills whilst having a chance to do an activity ‘with clear purpose’ working towards the competition. It was so clear that these children valued the variety a computing club offered and the experience of competing – and if it helps them develop their skills at the same time, that’s a bonus! Equally, every child spoke of the ‘challenge’ of attending – not in a negative, or frustrated way, but as an opportunity to take part in something where they did not know if they would succeed. How often do we allow the children to fail, while reassuring them that it’s the experience they learn from, not the success?

School and beyond

The children I work with are very young, and have so much education ahead of them that their careers aren’t really a consideration at this point, yet they saw older children and adult volunteers who were really invested in taking these skills towards future career paths. The children enjoyed talking to the adults, who had their own technology, about how they got started and how they would explain how things worked to them. They also saw adults who were passionate about learning even though they’d left school, something which some of them struggled to understand – why would you choose to learn after school stopped it being compulsory? The experience gave them another perspective on the purpose of learning. Finally, Pi Wars is held in the William Gates Building, home of Computer Science at the University of Cambridge, which is such a special opportunity for the children. Before the event, we talked about universities and what it was like to go to one and how it was similar and different to the school they know. It made them feel like they were more grown-up, just by being allowed into an ‘adult’ environment. This, being combined with such a supportive learning environment, has led to the children asking what they have to do to be allowed to go to universities like the one we visited

Students from Giffard Park Primary School taking part in Pi Wars 2019

Top Tips: Clubs without workload

  1. Don’t over-plan – clubs are not lessons and therefore they do not need to be structured like them. Get the children to suggest what they’d like to do ‘next week’ and all you need is an idea of topics/activities, no minute by minute plan.

  2. Resourcing – don’t spend hours trying to get everything you need ready before your club after a full day of teaching. Pupils can come with you to get resources you need, or if your school allows, they can be sent in small groups to get bits themselves!

  3. Tone – making the ‘feel’ of a club different from a lesson reduces the expectations of pupils and teachers to maintain the rigid structure of lessons. Do you need to stand at the front or can you all gather around a table? Do the children need to listen to you or can they discuss it together? Do you need to ‘lead’ the session or have they got ideas? Can they find answers online or in books? You don’t have to be the most knowledgeable person in the room!


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