Competitive edge: Bringing real-world computing to the classroom

Sharon Corkery

Sharon Corkery is now in her 20th year in the classroom and is currently head of Computer Science at Sutton Grammar School, a role that she has enjoyed more than any other teaching job she has had. Originally trained to teach Primary school, Sharon fell in love with computers and retrained to program after moving from the United States to the United Kingdom. She enjoys the Apps for Good programme because it incorporates so much enthusiasm for learning. When she is not teaching, Sharon enjoys spending time with her husband, Omar, and her two children, 4-year-old Adam and 8-year-old Maya.

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Getting students enthused about Computing can often be a bit of a battle. I wanted them to really benefit from understanding the purpose of the subject and how it can be applied to the real world. Being an all-boys school, our students are often very competitive with one another, which made me think about incorporating an element of competition in order to motivate them and bring some excitement to the subject.

"Students must think about an issue they care about, and identify a solution for it through the creation of an app."

The course we chose takes students through the product development cycle in order to create mobile apps with a social purpose. Students must think about an issue they care about, and identify a solution for it through the creation of an app. Once the concept has been established and students have designed their apps, they are then able to submit their ideas to a national competition, hosted by the organisation.

The idea of competing against one another ignites excitement and enthusiasm within the classroom. A bit of healthy rivalry can be a motivational boost for pupils and get them focused on the task ahead. However, in reality not every team in an entire year group will be shortlisted in the competition. It’s important to set realistic expectations with the students from the beginning, so as not to give them false hope. What I tell my students is:

“Yes you could win, and it’s really great if you do, but what we’re doing it for is the experience of learning how to look at technology and use it to solve problems, how to market technology and how to create something that appeals to an audience, and as such, will sell.”

While the competitive element grabs their attention, it’s the skills that the students’ learn throughout the course which are in fact the most valuable. Aside from learning how to programme, students also develop the ability to work collaboratively, present coherently and solve problems, all of which are important skills when the time comes for them to transition from education to the working world.

We are a Maths and Science specialist school, so while the majority of the boys are tech-savvy, few actually have the confidence to speak in public. We had one team last year who reached the finals of the competition and despite all being extremely clever, the thought of having to present in front of people really terrified them. While most of our students are successful, they don’t all end up with the ability to sell themselves and that’s what this competition brings. Students don’t just come up with an idea, but they have to convince others that their idea is workable and that includes communicating as a team and presenting to a panel.

The wider skills learned are something a traditional ICT course would never have been able to provide. They are transferable across various subjects and the ability to work in a team and present to an audience will help prepare them for future careers. When it comes to receiving feedback about their ideas, pupils can end up being disappointed. They have what they think is a great idea but then somebody else says it might not work and that hurts them. But that’s also life, and they need to learn how to overcome challenges and learn from this kind of feedback as they will no doubt come up against these situations later on in life.

"We had one team last year who reached the finals of the competition."

Being able to work as part of a team benefits students both socially and professionally. It’s crucial for pupils to identify the right people with the appropriate skillset, rather than just choosing to work with their friends. I let the boys choose their own groups but I am very clear about the expertise each team should encompass, for example, they should have one person who’s good at speaking, one person who is talented at designing etc. Each person must be comfortable with their responsibilities to ensure there are no dilemmas along the way. Of course, there will be times when it doesn’t run as smoothly as you’d hoped; I have had parents contact me saying, “I don’t think that everyone in my son’s group is pulling their weight”, which unfortunately happens. But this scenario often arises amongst adults in a working environment; it’s all part of the learning process.

Encouraging students to take an interest in Computing is vital in helping them understand and appreciate why it is used and how it can be applied to the work they are undertaking. The new curriculum enables teachers to get students thinking and working more creatively. They may have a basic understanding of what an app is, but it’s not until they start designing their own, that they realise the importance of coding and how it plays a part in the wider world. For them, the possibility of having an app they designed, available on their own phone is what really enthuses them. It may be a simple concept, but it’s about the ownership - being able to make something that is real and relatable, and not just confined to learning within the classroom.

Do you bring competitions into your school? Share your experiences below!

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