Posted by Rob Knies

WiPSCE 2012 Best Paper Award 

Over the past year, the use of .NET Gadgeteer in education steadily has gained momentum, and that surge in interest received significant validation a few weeks ago in Hamburg, Germany.

That city was the site of the seventh Workshop in Primary and Secondary Computing Education, held Nov. 8-9. During the proceedings, it was announced that Challenge and Creativity: Using .NET Gadgeteer in Schools, a paper co-written by Sue Sentance of the United Kingdom’s Anglia Ruskin University and Scarlet Schwiderski-Grosche of Microsoft Research Connections’ Europe and Russia region, had won the event’s Best Paper Award.

That was just the latest step forward for educational use of .NET Gadgeteer, a rapid prototyping platform for small electronic gadgets and embedded hardware devices. And it won’t be the only paper turning educators’ heads: Another, .NET Gadgeteer: A new platform for K-12 computer science education—written by Sentance and Schwiderski-Grosche, along with Steve Hodges, James Scott, and Nicolas Villar of Microsoft Research Cambridge; Colin Miller of Microsoft; Kerry Hammil of Microsoft Research Redmond; and Steven Johnston of the University of Southampton—will be presented during the 44th ACM technical symposium on Computer Science Education, forthcoming in March in Denver.

Lord Jim Knight, former U.K. schools minister, certainly is aware of the value the platform can bring to educational curricula. In June, he saw the .NET Gadgeteer kits firsthand during a visit to the Cambridge lab.

“I was hugely impressed with them,” Knight enthused, “and would love to see more being able to benefit from this sort of activity.”

He is getting his wish:

  • .NET Gadgeteer has been demonstrated at a range of different events, large and small, both for students and teachers. These have included three Computing at School events for teachers, a student workshop at the University of Manchester Animation Festival, Microsoft Research Cambridge’s Think Computer Science 2012 event, and the SIGCSE 2012 conference in Raleigh, N.C.
  • .NET Gadgeteer is being used in courses run under the auspices of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA), the largest of three English exam boards. Sentance has been gaining rave reviews for the AQA courses for teachers she has been instructing.
  • Successful pilot programs at schools in both the United Kingdom and the United States have demonstrated that .NET Gadgeteer has the sort of appeal that teenagers find easy to comprehend and embrace.

Hodges has found the pilots exciting.

“Trials of .NET Gadgeteer in secondary schools have shown that kids of all ages and abilities enjoy building real, physical devices,” he observes. “They find it both challenging and compelling. Moving away from a purely screen-based environment seems to unleash their creativity.

“Critically, it engages both girls and boys—something we’ve never really seen in computer science before.”

Indeed, during the pilot programs, both students and teachers said they were thrilled with the interactive, creative experience that .NET Gadgeteer encourages. Said one student after the first of two U.K. trials, which encompassed a total of 16 schools:

“You’re allowed to be sort of creative and … make anything—so you weren’t really limited to what you can make. You’re in control; you can take an idea anywhere and use the hardware that’s available. …”

Not to be outdone, a teacher from the second U.K. pilot observed:

“The technology of gadgets inspired them to work a little harder and play with ideas more.”

The first U.K. pilot involved more than 70 students, aged 13-16. It opened in October 2011 with a training workshop for teachers from eight secondary schools from the English counties of Cambridgeshire and Essex. Sentance created eight lesson plans for the students, including .NET Gadgeteer-enabled construction of a digital camera, a stopwatch, and a game. The course was taught during lunch or after school over 10 weeks, and the final weeks were dedicated to individual and group projects presented during a celebratory closing gathering at Microsoft Research Cambridge on Jan. 30.

A second, similar U.K. trial lasted 12 weeks. One of the course-ending projects to emerge was a device to check if a hot drink is cool enough to drink. Another was an engaging, interactive football game for which the students designed graphics to display on a 3.5-inch touchscreen. That one won the competition’s top prize.

The U.S. pilot was held at suburban public high schools near Seattle. Two courses were offered, Introduction to Computer Science and High School Computer Programming, with students in the latter eligible for college credits. The courses lasted a semester and encompassed about 75 hours of instruction and hands-on experience, using Microsoft Visual C# Express Edition and .NET Gadgeteer. Participants finished with a big project: the construction of a fully functional digital camera.

Not surprisingly, given such successes, the use of .NET Gadgeteer in schools has been garnering attention from the educational community. In the Autumn 2012 issue of Computing at School, an article entitled How Do We Teach Our Kids to Code? included a tutorial written by Sentance on building a digital camera. And in the September 2012 issue of CSTA Voice, a publication of the Computer Science Teachers Association, Sentance contributed the article Building with .NET Gadgeteer in the United Kingdom.

After his visit to Cambridge in June, Lord Knight commented, “I think there is a huge appetite for .NET Gadgeteer.”

These days, it seems, he continually is being proved right.