Research to Practice, Practice to Research
Computing workshops have seen an increase in numbers as computer science is becoming an important element of education models. They help young people use computational thinking and creativity to deepen their understanding of how the digital world is created and how it can be used, helping them prepare for the future. This article explores the CoderDojo workshops at the Science Museum in London. The Science Museum is part of the Science Museum Group (SMG), which is a collection of British museums including the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, the National Railway Museum in York, The National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, and Locomotion in County Durham. With their collections in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine, they are uniquely placed to draw people of all ages to engage with science in an inspirational, informal way.
The main goals of this article are to explore how the CoderDojo computing workshops support young people to engage with STEM with the aim to better understand the ways in which science learning is taking place through coding activities. The research is science capital informed and a science capital lens was used in the methodology and the analysis of the findings to better understand science engagement. STEM engagement is at the heart of what SMG does, and the concept of science capital is used to shape the group’s work, providing research-based insight into what influences and shapes people’s engagement with and attitudes toward science.
The article outlines details of the workshops, including key programming elements, followed by the findings and recommendations from a recent evaluation study that aimed to identify the impact of computing workshops in increasing science engagement by exploring the following questions:
The study was conducted as part of the COMnPLAY SCIENCE project (see COMnPLAY Science Project Fact Sheet). This three-year research project will help Europe better understand the new ways in which informal science learning is taking place through various coding, making, and play activities by
The article closes with a discussion of the lessons learned from the evaluation, highlighting the opportunities to increase young people’s engagement and further motivate them to engage with computing and STEM.
The CoderDojo computing workshops aim to help participants find more meaning and relevance in computing and engage more with the subject. The workshops highlight the relevance of computing for young people’s futures, finding ways to connect school learning with students’ diverse identities and lives to maximize the impact of STEM engagement. At the workshops children can learn to code; build a website; create an app or a game; and explore technology in an informal, creative, and social environment. Workshops are volunteer-led, and focus on peer and self-led learning. They take place once a month in a multipurpose room of the museum.
The CoderDojo workshops at the Science Museum are part of the CoderDojo global movement of free, volunteer-led, community-based programming clubs for young people. CoderDojo believes that an understanding of programming languages is increasingly important in the modern world, it’s easier to learn these skills early, and nobody should be denied the opportunity to do so.
Workshops are for families with children ages 7–17. Due to the museum’s safeguarding policies children must be accompanied by at least one adult. The workshops accommodate any level of experience, and participants do not need previous experience to participate. Children who typically participate have varied experience; for example, children over age 12 tend to have more experience from doing computing at school or other coding clubs, while children under age 10 have very little to no experience. Participants can shape their own learning by selecting preferred programming languages and activities; they can work on their own projects or a selection of activities provided by the museum. They are encouraged to “explore” the activities by themselves, following instructions found in provided activities.
Activity instructions are printed for participants to use and return when they are done; a link to a website is also available for those who prefer to do their own projects and identify what they want to do on their own time. The coding activities include making puzzles, quizzes, animations, websites, games, patterns, and drawings. They use different coding languages such as Scratch, Python, HTML, and Minecraft that are categorized by beginner, intermediate, or advanced. Participants can also bring their code into the real world using the Micro:bit hardware or program sequences of steps with Code & Go Robot Mouse.
The workshops are run by volunteers that have experience with programming either professionally or as a personal interest. Some workshop volunteers were Science Museum volunteers before they joined the workshops, while a few had experience volunteering in other coding clubs. Volunteers join the workshops because they are passionate about assisting young people in learning computing. They begin with a trial day to better understand the role and then, if they would like to join, attend a full training day. The training includes an introduction to the team, health and safety, facilitating and interacting with visitors training, and workshop-specific training with practical details. However, the museum does not provide any training in computing.
Workshops also have at least one museum staff member coordinating who is responsible for preparing the space, setting up tables and materials. Museum staff also brief the volunteers, going through the logistics of the day. At the workshops, staff meet and greet participants along with the volunteers, and deliver the introduction and show-and-tell sections. During the coding phase, staff members remain in the space, having a more supportive role assisting volunteers. They are also responsible for the health and safety of both participants and volunteers.
The CoderDojo workshops are divided into three sections:
The last session provides an opportunity for parents and volunteers to see the children’s work. Children can reflect on their work; provide their own thoughts; and share what they have done with everyone in the workshop, the challenges they face, and where they succeed or fail. They can receive praise and become inspired by others’ projects at the same time. The overall time of the workshops is 90 minutes. Workshops comply with the museum’s safeguarding policies; everyone involved has undergone a criminal record check, and risk assessments are in place.
In spring 2020 the Science Museum Group evaluated the computing workshops; research was conducted by members of the in-house Audience Research Team of the Science Museum Group. Data was collected through observations and interviews with volunteers and families.
Observations provided rich, qualitative data of the range of activities involving children, accompanying adults, and volunteers. These observations were not intrusive and did not require video or audio recording of children. Two workshops were observed for this research (a total of three hours of activities), and all field notes were taken by hand. Interviews allowed a deeper understanding of how families and volunteers perceived and dealt with the workshops. All interviewees received the same open-ended questions.
Eight volunteers and five families were interviewed; each interview lasted 45 minutes (nine hours total). Volunteers had worked in at least one workshop before the interview. Families interviewed had joined at least one workshop in the previous three months before the interview. Families that participated were also given a £20 voucher. All interviews were conducted by phone or video call at a prearranged time. Volunteers and families were asked a range of questions including
This study was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, which impacted the number of workshops we were able to observe and the number of participants for each workshop. Additionally, because the workshops stopped during the pandemic, more detailed understanding of the workshops commenced with informal discussions with museum staff members who coordinate the workshops. Coordinators gave insight into the workshops, their structure, and the dynamics between families and volunteers and vice versa.
The Science Museum Group has developed a number of science capital–informed tools, which help the museum identify visitors’ STEM-related experiences, knowledge, behaviors, and attitudes that can influence their engagement. The concept of science capital (science-related qualifications, interest, literacy, and social contacts) (Archer et al. 2015; Archer et al. 2016) is used to inform the delivery of engaging, inspiring, and memorable experiences to better understand how children engage with STEM and how their engagement might be supported.
Two of these tools were used in this research to draw out and interpret findings: Science Engagement Reflection Points (Figure 1) and Audience Engagement Framework (Figure 2). The Science Engagement Reflection Points encourage the museum to look critically at its audiences’ STEM experience and include reflecting on the language used, the audience’s science content knowledge, and the use of everyday examples. The Audience Engagement Framework enables practitioners to reflect and evaluate against five elements that are central to any audience’s engagement experience. These points were central to the data analysis and used to code the data; we specifically examined the data to look for these elements demonstrated in the workshops:
Using the lens of science capital to inform our observations of the workshops enabled us to generate robust evidence to understand the extent that learning experiences were inclusive for a diverse range of families and how to support more people to engage in the future and extend their science learning beyond their visit.
Data from interviews were processed using qualitative analysis; each set of data was analyzed to identify patterns and behaviors and then coded. Similarly, the observations were examined using an observation template and prompts that correlate with science capital research (Figures 1 and 2).
The majority of those involved in the research responded positively to the workshops; they stated that they enjoyed participating and found the activities enjoyable. Families highlighted that they enjoyed the exercises and the programming tasks and that the workshops were hands-on. Families also liked that the workshops helped them to have better awareness of the different coding languages and develop a better understanding of what coding is and where it applies in the wider world.
Interviews showed that families and volunteers felt that workshops were effective in communicating coding skills because the children are able to learn through play: “You can make a crazy witch or anything you like” “Learn by trying things, like playing Lego” “Make things fly.” Parents commented that the playful nature of the activities helped them enjoy the workshops while maintaining their engagement: “Just a fun time for the family, a little bit competitive.” In addition, the variety of coding languages, activities, and levels within the workshops allowed them free choice, enabling creativity without a strict definition of what success or failure looked like: “Definitely not a course, learn by trying things, there isn’t a target, it is up to you” “Allows them to be creative, try different things, unlike school is not formulated.”
Looking closely into the activities also showed that the workshops were successful in engaging participants and we could identify elements from the Audience Engagement Framework. Workshops used engaging methods—such as animations, unique design, vibrant colors, cartoonish characters, games, and avatars—and provided a story line or a scenario for users to follow that suited a variety of needs and abilities. The different levels of activities could also link and build on participants’ existing knowledge and understanding, such as mathematics (geometry, spatial sense, patterning, measurement, numeration) and basic computing. Finally, activities were not restricted to the workshops, they were all freely available online and children were encouraged to continue to engage outside of the workshop and extend the experience.
There were times that the format of the workshops caused a level of uncertainty for first-time participants whose only reference point was a classroom setting. However, children—with the help of the volunteers that explained how the workshops work—were able to adapt quite easily to the new environment and enjoyed the informal setup, and they had the chance to work and make their own decisions.
Observations also showed that volunteers at times used everyday examples to help children understand activities and phenomena that occurred at the workshops. For example, to help a child understand how BBC Micro:bit functioned, a volunteer referenced the frequencies and colors of traffic lights. However, when asked, families and volunteers did not think that the workshops made explicit links to how coding skills are relevant to the children’s everyday lives. Volunteers argued that workshops focused more on challenges and tasks of the activities and the different codes, and they did not focus on how coding applies to their everyday lives.
Families and volunteers commented that because children visit the workshops in their free time and the workshops are not part of their schoolwork, the workshops were considered to be a hobby. This view could also form because children can work on their own projects, make their own decisions, build on them over time, and access the activities online. Therefore, participants associated the workshops as an activity that they can do during their free time, outside the school environment.
Workshops provided a space where participants could work on their projects, collaborate, and get inspired by each other’s projects. This became clear with the show-and-tell sessions; parents commented on the excitement children had after the show-and-tell sessions and that they felt proud and satisfied. They also served as discussion points for their children at home; they talked about the activities they saw and how they could develop their own project. Families commented on the importance of all children sharing their work no matter their progress. Families found that this helped their children process their activities and have a better understanding of what coding can do and why they do the activities. Parents said that the show-and-tell session is one of the reasons why they chose to come to the workshops.
However, families and volunteers noted that children during the coding phase of the workshops were task-focused and would not want to engage with the volunteers; they were seated with their laptops alone, not interacting or engaging with their surroundings. The reason for this finding though could be that there were not as many children in the workshop as normal due to COVID–19.
When communications occurred, children preferred to chat with members within their family group, either a sibling or a friend. Observations and interviews showed that participants rely on peer support with the activities. The setup of the space helped as well, and this was particularly noted with children on the same language table who had chosen the same activity or with children who were using the same programming language. Volunteers also found that children preferred to ask their peers for help rather than the volunteers. Children may feel more confident sharing their ideas and work with a friend/sibling or someone of a similar age and experience.
Observations and interviews helped us understand the role of volunteers in CoderDojo workshops. Findings showed that volunteers acted as observers moving around and rarely intervening; mainly responding to children’s requests. During workshops volunteers hovered between programming tables asking if children were all right, checking on their progress, and asking whether they needed help: “I am just walking around, let me know if you need help” or “What are you working on?” When children needed support, volunteers sat with them to find a solution and support the children to undertake their tasks. New participants received special attention. Volunteers noted that they usually spend more time with newcomers to set them up with the workshops and the activities and identify their knowledge level and what they would like to work on: “Are you familiar with coding?” “Have you got a project you are working on already?” “Do you have a project in mind?” “What experience do you have in coding?” If they were unsure, the volunteers suggested things they might like to try. There were times that they compared activities with popular video games (e.g., “It is like Minecraft”) to help participants have a better understanding. Other members of the family groups (an adult or sibling/friend) also provided support. Children in family groups that were familiar with a programming language were helping their siblings, giving them instructions, and guiding them through the activities.
Similar to the findings above, when volunteers asked about the workshops, they found that the workshops’ focus is on resolving challenges and tasks of the activities and the different codes. They saw themselves mostly as helpers; they preferred to intervene only when asked, oversee children working on their projects, and not engage any further or get into discussions with the participants—their interactions were purely around coding. Volunteers thought that families would not be interested in engaging with them and that they joined the workshops to learn and do coding.
However, families were pleased with the volunteers during the workshops. They found volunteers friendly, helpful, approachable, available, supportive, and discreet in their approach. Regular participants mentioned that they felt that they had built a relationship with the volunteers and that they usually have short chats. They were able to recall some names. Families see volunteers at the workshops as coding experts and tended not to question their expertise, knowledge, and qualifications.
From the evaluation, we were able to identify the ways in which the workshops support engagement with STEM and coding as well as areas for improvement. The setup of the workshops and the wide range of activities allowed children to be imaginative and creative. Being open-ended, having a trial-and-error approach, and letting children choose the programming language and activities—or even do their own projects and work at their own pace—enabled children to shape the nature of their participation and follow their interests. Children had the opportunity to share their knowledge and experiences with others during the show-and-tell sessions and be cheered by their families and other participants. This was rewarding and created positive reinforcement. Also, children could extend their experience afterward by accessing the online activities at home or elsewhere.
Coding activities were very engaging for children. They enabled children to grow and find relevance while providing an opportunity to develop a unique product that could be shared. They were built on challenges and encouraged competition; there were steps and tasks to follow in a gamified environment that at the same time allowed changes, self-discovery, and self-expression. Activities had various stimuli to convey the different tasks and capture children’s attention. This environment appeared to be crucial in maintaining children’s interest in the coding activities. They were easy to start and follow at their own pace, but open for children to build and tailor to their needs and ideas.
The research showed that during the CoderDojo workshops some dimensions of science capital were applied. However, often there were opportunities to build on the science capital dimensions that were missed or could be further refined. Using the Science Museum’s Group engagement reflection points, there are three identified areas of improvement that the museum could investigate further. Key to this is that volunteers did not see themselves as role models and did not recognize the importance of their personal experiences and knowledge that they bring to the workshops, even though families see them as experts and they are introduced as experts by the museum. Sharing volunteers’ knowledge and background will broaden children’s perception of who does science by showing diverse examples of the people who use computing in their work and everyday lives. Acknowledging the value of their personal experiences (professional or non) and sharing them with children would have possibly changed the interaction volunteers had with children—how children perceive them but also how often and why they interact with volunteers.
Also, volunteers’ approach when interacting with children was mostly task-focused, providing fast answers for programming issues. Volunteers rarely built on children’s previous knowledge and experiences or made connections to their everyday lives. This is another area to explore and further science engagement. There were times that volunteers were observed interacting with children, especially with newcomers during introductions, using questions to learn about their interests, coding knowledge, and likes to suggest activities and programming languages; however, these interactions were brief and limited.
Finally, another area is how to link the workshop’s content to participants’ interests and experiences, using everyday examples of where and how computing is related to their everyday lives and real-life issues. Building on participants’ interests and experiences could help make these connections and make computing relevant to their lives.
Our recommendations for other museum practitioners seeking to increase participants’ engagement in computing workshops include:
We also found that we could increase participants’ engagement by getting volunteers more involved. Moving from a workshop approach that provides task-related support to encouraging volunteers to share their interests and science backgrounds/stories using everyday examples and valuing participants’ existing knowledge could also help increase science engagement.
This study has deepened our understanding of how facilitation is perceived and delivered during the workshops in parallel with participants’ engagement. To reflect this, future research will focus on how changes in facilitation can improve science engagement. From this work we plan to provide guidance to encourage volunteers to share their science interests and backgrounds with participants and further science engagement.
This article is supported by the “Learning science the fun and creative way: coding, making, and play as vehicles for informal science learning in the 21st century” Project, under the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 SwafS-11-2017 Program (Project Number: 787476). Many thanks to all partners of the project for their support.
The author would also like to thank museum staff, volunteers, and participants of the workshops who participated in the research and the anonymous reviewers. Special thanks to Karen Davies, and the SMG Audience Research team for their input and help. Finally, I would like to express my gratitude and sincerely thank Lauren Souter for her invaluable guidance, feedback, and encouragement in preparation for this paper.
Opening art credit: Michael Parkin
Dafni Konstantinidi-Sofrona (Dafni.Konstantinidi_Sofrona@sciencemuseum.ac.uk) is an Audience Researcher at the Science Museum Group based at the Science Museum in London, United Kingdom.
citation: Konstantinidi-Sofrona, D. 2021. Evaluation of computing workshops at the science museum. Connected Science Learning 3 (2). https://www.nsta.org/connected-science-learning/connected-science-learning-march-april-2021/evaluation-computing
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