Last year, EPFL’s Center for Learning Sciences (LEARN) launched an ambitious pilot project. The idea was to teach computer science and computational thinking skills to over 350 generalist elementary teachers – 98% of whom were women – and to inspire them to pass on their new-found knowledge to pupils despite resistance to technology in the classroom. LEARN, which coordinates Vaud Canton’s lifelong digital skills program in conjunction with the Vaud University of Teacher Education (HEP), the Vaud Department of Education, Youth and Culture (DFJC) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL), has recently reviewed the initiative – and the results are in.
Teachers from ten pilot schools selected by Vaud Canton completed 24 hours of training over four days: three at their school and the fourth and final day at EPFL. The course was largely team-taught by two trainers: a teacher familiar with the local educational system and an academically trained scientist.
As part of the packed program, the teachers were introduced to concepts including algorithms, coding, educational robotics and computational thinking. “We realized that unplugged activities would work best because most of the teachers had reservations about using screens in class with such young children,” explains LEARN academic director Francesco Mondada. “The program’s success also hinged on how we designed the course. We opted for hands-on, collaborative learning. By listening to what the teachers needed and taking their input on board, we built a flexible program that gave them the confidence to take what they’d learned and apply it in the classroom.”
An impressive 97% of the teachers who took the course ran some of the activities with their pupils, despite being under no obligation to do so. “We applaud what EPFL and our partners have achieved,” says Cesla Amarelle, Vaud cantonal councillor for education, youth and culture. “Based on the feedback we’ve had from teachers and school administrators, we’re planning to run the course again. We’d even like to fast-track the pilot phase.”
The unplugged and robotics activities proved particularly popular with the teachers. Among the favorites was the “sorting machine,” where pupils try their hand at sorting data using a universally known algorithm and consider the implications of processor speed. Another front-runner was the “stupid robot” game, which introduces pupils to algorithms, loops and bugs. One pupil writes a set of instructions for escaping a maze or collecting an object, and another executes them. The teachers also singled out activities involving the Blue-Bot and Thymio robots, which teach children about robotics and coding.
“Children form ideas about computer science at a young age,” adds Mondada. “That’s why it’s so important to get computing onto the curriculum early on – for pupils and teachers alike. Some of the teachers who completed the course said they’d changed their view of technology. Their opinions are now based on evidence rather than prejudice.” Many of the teachers said they had a more solid understanding of how computers work and felt better equipped to run computer science activities with their pupils. They also enjoyed the fact that the activities got pupils working in groups and said that children found the exercises engaging and easy to grasp. The only downside was that, after the course, many of the teachers were still unsure about the concept of “computational thinking.”
“We’ll work on that aspect ahead of the next course,” explains Mondada. “Likewise, we need to improve how we track and assess pupils’ learning. We want to make a long-term difference when it comes to digital uptake in the classroom.” The aim is that, by the age of 8, pupils should be able to write and execute simple algorithms, encode and decode data to represent and transmit information, and recognize the key components of a computer. This fall, LEARN will train middle-school teachers at the same ten pilot schools, plus a cohort of elementary teachers from two new schools in a condensed, three-day course.