Kiwi-developed computer science education program gets a big global boost from Microsoft grant

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and NZ Govt Minister of Education Hon Hekia Parata commend support for Kiwi computational thinking education initiative

A tried and tested New Zealand-designed school program for developing computational thinking skills is being given a major global boost, thanks to a new grant announced today by Microsoft NZ.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella with Minh Vu during a visit to Freemans Bay Primary school, Auckland, New Zealand, 17 November 2016.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella during a visit to Freemans Bay Primary school, Auckland, New Zealand, 17 November 2016.

The Computer Science Unplugged project (www.csunplugged.org) is a collection of free learning activities that teach Computer Science through engaging games and puzzles that use cards, string, crayons and physical activity. The activities introduce students to Computational Thinking (CT) through concepts such as binary numbers, algorithms and data compression, but separated – “unplugged” – from the distractions and technical details of having to use computers.

First developed by Professor Tim Bell of the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering at the University of Canterbury in collaboration with colleagues at other universities, the program has now been around for over twenty years. In that time, it has been translated into 20 languages and developed a strong following around the world as an extension and outreach program for classrooms and science centers. The material is suitable for people of all ages and backgrounds, from elementary school to seniors, and is available free of charge under a Creative Commons license that allows it to be copied.

The new Microsoft ‘Youthspark’ grant of NZ$343,000 will now enable Professor Bell to re-factor the material so it will have greater applicability and usability within schooling systems all around the world. Bell says he is thrilled to receive the grant from Microsoft, which will enable this program development work to be done in New Zealand.

Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, hears from students learning computational thinking through the CS Unplugged program.
Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, hears from Freemans Bay School students learning computational thinking through the CS Unplugged program.

“One of the challenges is how we help teachers and students get started with teaching and learning computational thinking. CS Unplugged introduces the concept through a fun and engaging program that can get them started without the need for technology. We have found that enabling teachers and students to approach the subject through ‘unplugged’ lessons prior to getting onto a computer builds confidence and enthusiasm, and gets students thinking about the concepts involved,” says Prof. Bell.

“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.”

Prof. Bell says the new project that the Microsoft grant is funding will involve converting CS Unplugged to 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.

Minister for Education, Hon. Hekia Parata with students learning computational thinking through the CS Unplugged program.
Minister for Education, Hon. Hekia Parata with Freemans Bay School students learning computational thinking through the CS Unplugged program.

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

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

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella during a visit to Freemans Bay Primary school, Auckland, New Zealand, 17 November 2016.

Microsoft New Zealand Managing Director, Barrie Sheers, says the CS Unplugged program will make it easier for young people in underserved communities to learn the computational thinking skills that will provide the foundation for careers in technology, without the need for technology itself.

“Computer science talent can come from anywhere, and this program allows for equity of access to education in computational thinking,” says Sheers.

He says Microsoft globally is committed to working in partnership with governments, nonprofit organisations and businesses around the world to provide opportunities for all youth to learn computer science.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella with Sumaya Abrahams during a visit to Freemans Bay Primary school, Auckland, New Zealand, 17 November 2016.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella during a visit to Freemans Bay Primary school, Auckland, New Zealand, 17 November 2016.

“Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more, and today’s announcement is a perfect encapsulation of that mission.

“We were equally pleased by Ms Parata’s announcement of a new focus on Digital Technologies in the New Zealand school curriculum, and we see this as a significant way we can support students and teachers in building pathways to careers in the technology industry from the primary and secondary school level,” says Sheers.

“We are thrilled to be able to recognise Tim Bell’s great work, especially as he and his team have demonstrated incredible commitment to building this program over a long time. We are pleased to be able to help them accelerate the CS Unplugged program and take it to a new level.”

ENDS

For more information, contact:
Brendan Boughen
Communications Manager, Microsoft NZ
Mobile: +64 27 839 6044
Email: brendan.boughen@microsoft.com

About Microsoft
Microsoft (Nasdaq “MSFT” @microsoft) is the leading platform and productivity company for the mobile-first, cloud-first world, and its mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

About Microsoft YouthSpark Microsoft YouthSpark is a global initiative to increase access for all youth to learn computer science, empowering them to achieve more for themselves, their families and their communities. Microsoft works in partnership with governments, nonprofit organizations and businesses to focus this initiative on providing opportunities for all youth to learn computer science.

About Professor Tim Bell
Prof. Tim Bell leads a computer science education research group at the University of Canterbury, informally known as the “Department of Fun Stuff”. His work has won several awards, including a New Zealand Science Communicator Award, the ETH (Zurich) ABZ International honorary medal for fundamental contributions in Computer Science education. He is the author or co-author of over 100 journal and conference papers, and several books.