Wednesday 24 May 2017

Bright sparks in digital technology

 

A Wellington secondary school is fostering a love of digital technology and computer science through the use of open source software in the classroom.

Digital technology education is buzzing at Wellington East Girls’ College (WEGC), a large multicultural secondary school on the edge of the capital’s CBD.
Digital technology standards have been taught at the school since 2011, with girls embracing all things programming, databases, website development and computer science.
The school has also been proudly represented at various technology competitions and events, with students attending the summer Catalyst Open Source Academy, ASB Bright Sparks competition and the NZ Open Source Awards.
OPEN SOURCE FOR LEARNING
Digital technologies teacher Edwin Bruce says a key defining factor in the school’s approach to the subject is its commitment to open source software (OSS), alongside the Google, Microsoft and Adobe suites.
Both he and co-head of department Cris Roughton believe the use of OSS not only mirrors what is being done in many areas of the IT industry, but also fits nicely within the wider ethos of education.
“As a matter of course we use open source software where possible with students of all ages, and where it meets our teaching requirements,” says Edwin.
“It’s generally recognised as being more challenging to learn, but is equally rewarding and has the potential to teach a student more about computer science.”
“It is, of course, free of cost, but most importantly, we feel that the philosophy of open source is aligned to the values of education: it’s collaborative, it builds on existing knowledge, and it can be shared without constraint.”
The department values technical support from the IT staff at the school, Luke Duncan and
Joseph Bell.
“We’re encouraged by our technical support team to use the best software for each of our requirements.”
In some cases, Google, Microsoft and Adobe suites are a better fit for particular classroom needs.
“Of course, many schools make the decision to standardise their technical environment, for very sensible reasons,” says Edwin.
“If you like, we want to use the best product for what’s required.”
Open source software used at the school includes:
·         Notepad ++ text editor, which is used to script HTML5 and CSS3 websites
·         Python programming language and Pyscriptor application development environment, used to teach programming
·         MySQL database... widely used phpmyadmin administration of MySQL databases
·         PHP programming language used to link web pages to MySQL databases
·         Apacheserver – used to serve up web page content (via XAMPPS development and deployment environment)
·         GitHub – source code management system
·         a variety of other open source tools.
FRIENDS IN THE INDUSTRY
WEGC enjoys a close friendship with the wider technology industry, including local information technology firm Datacom, which donates a cash prize for the top year 13 digital technology student each year.
The professional association for IT workers, IT Professionals (NZ), donates a cup to the top student each year, and representatives from open source software company Catalyst visit to speak to students each year.
It is these relationships that lend richness to the digital technologies curriculum at the school.
For example, Wellington IT company Catalyst runs Open Source Academy every January, and Edwin says the school encourages its students to apply.
“It’s very challenging and fun and provides great learning opportunities for our senior digital technologies students.”
Aimed at secondary school students, Catalyst’s Open Source Academy provides two weeks of intense learning and mentored project work.
Participants work on authentic open source software projects, and it’s an opportunity for them to extend their knowledge and skills beyond their classroom learning and into an industry-based environment.
“This year, five of the 20 students that were accepted into the academy were from WEGC,” says Edwin.
“We find it valuable, because the students come back very knowledgeable and can share their new skills with their peers in the classroom.
“Our involvement with the academy has also seen some of our students go on to either be interns at Catalyst, or routinely use open source software in everyday life.”
DEVICES
As in many schools, a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programme is now being rolled out to students in all year groups at WEGC.
“This is our third year of BYOD and it’s been great – we have a high pick-up rate amongst our students. We also keep a pool of Chrome notebooks for students to use if they need them,” says Edwin.
Described as ‘device and platform agnostic’, the school’s BYOD programme is flexible in that students are provided with support to use Chromebooks or iPads, Windows tablets or Linux operating systems.
“One characteristic our students share is that they’re quite confident about using open source software.
“We also have our own computing suites – we don’t rely on the student’s computing power for the digital technology specialist subjects,” he says.
BRIGHT SPARKS LEADING THE WAY
In an industry that has traditionally struggled to recruit young women, WEGC has produced a number of talented young computer scientists, including recent graduates Amelia Cordwell and Lana Cleverley.
“Amelia and Lana have been the icing on the cake for our department over the past few years,” says Edwin.
“They’ve gone on to produce some rather interesting applications for the school, whether it’s a lighting system or the Ignite game – they’ve probably been the strongest proponents for open source from the school.”
Both Amelia and Lana have taken part in ASB Bright Sparks, an annual competition that aims to recognise and celebrate New Zealand’s future engineers, electricians, programmers and inventors.
In 2015 Amelia won the Bright Sparks senior software category and was the only female entrant.
Her winning open source app, EliDMX, allows the user to easily control stage lighting with a simple swipe of a phone screen, rather than a complicated mixing deck.
In 2016 Amelia teamed up with classmate Lana Cleverley to create IGNITE, a QR code-based scavenger hunt game for schools, to help foster team spirit. They won first place in the Bright Sparks senior software category in the same year.
The girls entered their IGNITE app into the 2016 NZ Open Source Awards in 2016, where they were named the youngest finalists ever.
“This is the first time any school-age students have been nominated, let alone been finalists, in these awards, which have been running since 2007,” says Edwin. “So that was fantastic, as they were up against some pretty significant competition.”



WHAT IS OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE?

*  Open source software (OSS) is computer software with its source code made freely available to
    anyone and for any purpose.
*  OSS may be developed in a collaborative, public way.
*  OSS acknowledges that shared development from a variety of independent sources leads to a more
    diverse scope of design perspectives than any one company is capable of developing and sustaining.
*  Through the use of OSS models, consumers have saved billions of dollars.

 

Digital technologies in the curriculum at Wellington East Girls’ College Digital technology is delivered as an optional subject from years 9–13 at the school.
The year 9 students produce a range of work including multimedia presentations, complex image montages and small games. They also learn general information management skills, as well as key competencies such as thinking, relating to others and managing selves.
Year 10 students create websites incorporating their own manipulated and prepared images. During this unit they also learn about privacy, copyright, and the social issues associated with the internet.
After learning the basics of computer programming, they then develop a program, which might be a game (played by other students/whānau) or an educational tool.
This also allows them to demonstrate coding and design skills in relation to the presentation of their program. Students also work in groups to create knowledge and prepare an online portfolio on a contemporary issue of interest, such as environmental issues. They then present their outcomes in an innovative way to their classmates.
At the year 11 level, student outcomes include a presentation about budgeting, incorporating spreadsheet data; a multi-page website incorporating images and video and a Python program and associated plan to build a quiz that can be used by primary school students.
Students also produce a portfolio for external assessment, the focus being their experiences and responsibilities as a digital citizen.
At year 12, students develop a website that accesses information in a MySQL database. Typically, data is drawn from governmental open data repositories to support this outcome, for example, stolen car records from the police, or a teacher’s register.
Increasingly sophisticated quiz programs (with associated planning and testing) are developed around themes of sustainability, healthy eating or other contemporary issues.
Students also produce a portfolio for external assessment looking at an organisation’s information systems, including the use of open source software (and proprietary software) as well as security and privacy issues.
Year 13 students develop a sophisticated working website, featuring a range of images accessed through a MySQL database that the students have designed themselves.
They also produce a data entry and verification program (Python with a GUI and using object oriented programming techniques) to populate this database. Students are required to write a report on the information systems used by such diverse organisations as police and customs, and this is externally assessed.
OUTCOMES FOR STUDENTS
Digital technology students at WEGC are learning to understand the technological processes involved in delivering the digital tools we use every day, and thereby engaging with these tools more deeply.
Students are developing their critical thinking skills and learning to make good decisions and be responsible citizens in today’s information-rich society.
Through the process of building websites, apps and other digital media, students are engaged creatively, and able to communicate representations of their identities.
The digital technology curriculum also nurtures and develops students’ key competencies as they participate and contribute to projects, both with their peers and independently.
 
 
 

Year 13 Wellington East Girls’ College students in the school’s computer suite. Photo: Edwin Bruce.