News and blog

Junior School Computer Science

Junior School Computer Science

It has been another very busy and exciting year for Computer Science at the Junior School with many trips, competitions and special events taking place, in addition to the weekly specialist-taught Computer Science lessons.

Once again, the new academic year got off to a great start in September with a visit to the ‘Centre for Computing History’ here in Cambridge. The focus of the visit was an exhibition entitled 'Computing His HerStory', which brought together information about the pioneering women whose contribution to the computing industry was undeniably crucial, as well as providing an insight into those working in computing and associated industries today.
Our Year 6 girls helped to launch the exhibition on its very first day and were photographed for the associated press and social media coverage. In addition to this, as part of the close working relationship that we have established with the staff at the Centre, we were the only school to be approached to contribute directly to this new exhibition. After the visit, the girls were asked to contribute their ideas under the title, ‘What Does A Computer Scientist Look Like?’. These ideas, which were highly praised by the staff at the museum, have now been incorporated into a display as part of the exhibition, which is now open to the general public.
In addition, during the visit they participated in a series of practical activities including learning how to program 30-year-old BBC Micro computers using the text-based BBC Basic coding language, discussing the evolution of computers and their uses throughout history, exploring the development of computer games by gaining hands-on experience with a variety of historic computers and their original software, and creating their own Morse Code transmitters and receivers. They also participated in a question-and-answer session led by Suzanna Beanland from Darktrace (a local cyber security company) about possible future careers in tech-related industries.

The staff at the Centre were extremely impressed with the girls, not only in terms of their Computer Science skills, but also with their interest in the development of computing and the historical figures who pioneered it, and their intelligent questions and observations throughout the visit.

All of the girls had a thoroughly enjoyable experience and now have a much greater understanding of the parts that they may be able to play in the next phase of developments within the computing and technology industries, by following in the footsteps of the pioneering women who have already been so instrumental in this field.

In the second week of November, all girls in Years 2, 4 & 6 took part in the ‘Bebras Computational Thinking Challenge 2022’ during their Computer Science lessons, the results for which have just been released. This is an online competition run by Oxford University, which involves solving complex problems against the clock, using computational thinking skills such as algorithm design, pattern recognition, logic and abstraction. Our girls competed in their respective age categories against schools from all over the UK (over 367,000 students in total) and the competition also ran in over 50 other countries across the world.
This is the third year that St Mary’s Junior School has taken part in the competition, and we are absolutely delighted with the results that our girls have achieved compared to other schools across the country as a whole.

In addition to results at a whole school level, the girls also received certificates for their individual achievements compared to national performance data, with the ‘Merit’ and ‘Distinction’ categories for exceptional performances being achieved by more than 9 out of 10 of girls in Year 6, over half the girls in Year 4, and all of the girls in Year 2.

We were also delighted that four of our Year 6 girls achieved scores in the top 10% nationally and were invited to participate in the online ‘Oxford University Computing Challenge 2023’.  Five girls now in Year 7 and Year 8 were also invited to participate as a result of their exceptional performances in last year’s OUCC competition.

The OUCC Competition took place during the week beginning 16 January. Nationally, 6,338 students participated in the ‘Junior’ age category (Years 6 and 7) and 9,564 students in the 'Intermediate' age category (Years 8 and 9), and we are delighted that, despite the reduction of the time limit from one hour to forty-five minutes (but with the same number of questions!), all of our girls achieved superb scores, including a 'Merit Award', for a performance in the top 11% of entrants nationally.

In their weekly Computer Science lessons (in addition to more traditional ICT activities such as spreadsheets, databases and desktop publishing), all of the girls have gained experience of a wide range of different coding methods, using both physical and virtual (on-screen) equipment.

Our Preschool and Reception girls have learnt about sequences of instructions and programmed BeeBots (small wheeled robots which look like bees!) to navigate around a specified route. They have also extended these skills using the BeeBot and BlueBot iPad apps. In Years 1 and 2, the girls have been introduced to Scratch Junior – a piece of software that has a colourful and easy to use interface, which allows the girls to select sequences of command functions (without yet using code themselves) in order to create animations and trigger on-screen events.

Girls in Year 3 & 4 have used the full version of Scratch to develop simple computer games. They have also learnt the basics of Crumble programming with our Crumble ‘Playground’ equipment, which includes LEDs, switches, buzzers, light sensors, motors and touch sensors. In Years 5 and 6 the girls have learnt about visual flowchart programming and begun to explore text-based coding using LOGO and Python as well as HTML.

On 26 April, we were delighted to be able to hold our first ever ‘Year 5 CrumbleBot Challenge Day’. The girls worked in collaborative teams in a scaled-down in-school version of the ‘RoboCupJunior UK National Primary Championships', but using an even greater variety of coding skills to program their CrumbleBot robots.
RoboCupJunior is an international organisation that runs national and international coding and robotics competitions in a variety of age categories and leagues. Face-to-face competitions have been ‘on-hold’ for the last few years due to the pandemic but, prior to this, teams from St Mary’s Junior School have had great success at both national and international levels. Most recently, in 2019, our Year 5 Team were crowned ‘RoboCupJunior UK National Primary Line Tracking Champions‘, our Year 6 Team were crowned ‘RoboCupJunior UK National Primary Rescue Simulation Champions’ and four of our Year 6 girls were ‘RoboCupJunior Euro 2019 Rescue Simulation Quarter Finalists’ in the U19 Category in Hannover, Germany. We hope to be able to report back on future successes, as soon as these competitions resume.
The ‘Year 5 CrumbleBot Challenge Day’ saw the girls participating in a series of challenges against the clock; using monochrome, ultrasonic and light sensors to enable their CrumbleBots to navigate autonomously around a variety of different environments. They had a strict time limit of 15 minutes for each challenge, but were allowed as many practice runs as they needed during that time, to allow them to adjust their code and get the fastest time possible. However, there was a 5 second penalty every time their robot left the course or crashed into an obstacle, so the girls quickly discovered that accuracy could be more important than overall speed, as the penalties soon added up! The times (and penalties) for their fastest runs on each challenge were added together and the team with the quickest overall time were declared the champions.
Certificates were awarded to the Class and Overall Year 5 Champions, as well as for the ‘Fastest Individual Challenge Time’ for each challenge, and the ‘Best Teamwork’.

We would like to congratulate all of our girls for their determination, perseverance, sporting attitude and enthusiasm throughout a very intense, but enjoyable and highly productive day.

On Wednesday 17 May, we were delighted to welcome 45 students from Stella Maris College in Madrid, Spain for our annual 'Computer Science International Outreach Day'. The Spanish students (all Year 8 boys) worked with our Year 6 girls in collaborative teams to learn how to program virtual (on-screen) robots as part of a RoboCupJunior inspired ‘Rescue Simulation Challenge’.
The ‘Computer Science International Outreach Day’ consisted of a workshop session in our STEM Lab during which the students were introduced to the Rescue Simulation software package and learnt the basics of ‘Event-Driven Programming’. They worked together to develop their code to program their robot to compete head-to-head against another team's robot and collect as many coloured objects as possible. The objects then had to be deposited in the orange 'drop zone' before the end of the three-minute competition time and bonus points were also awarded for specific actions, all whilst avoiding obstacles and traps. Having completed their initial programming, the teams were then given a development session to allow improvements to be made, before taking part in a mini competition. Certificates were awarded to the overall winning team, as well as for the highest individual match score and the best teamwork.

Our girls thoroughly enjoyed working with students from Spain and discovering that age, language and cultural differences can enhance rather than hinder collaborative working, creative thinking and teamwork. They also gained a flavour of what a rich experience international competitions can provide, and we hope that this will inspire them to compete on a global level in whatever direction their future studies lead them.

As this article goes to print, we are eagerly awaiting the results of this year’s ‘Young Coders Competition’. Our Year 6 Team (Ecoders) submitted their entry just before May Half Term and hope to build upon last year’s success (placed in the ‘Top 20’ nationally). This is a national competition for children in Years 4-8 to design and code an interactive computer game, using the ‘Scratch’ programming language, in order to raise awareness of careers in STEM related industries, in accordance with this year’s theme, ‘A Future in STEM’. The girls have worked on this project independently, in their own time during evenings and weekends, keeping in touch and collaborating via Microsoft Teams.

We wish them the very best of luck with their entry!

Andrew Severy, Computer Science Lead

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