We’re delighted to report that QMUL’s Prof Paul Curzon is to be awarded the Taylor L. Booth Education Award medal for “an outstanding record in computer science education” for his work on the CS4FN and Teaching London Computing projects.
Thanks to Simon Peyton Jones of Microsoft Research for giving us permission to repost his comments about Paul’s win (see link at end).
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Paul Curzon has made outstanding contributions to the rebirth of computer science as a school subject. He has gone far beyond simply being an effective educator in his subject: he has made a qualitatively new contribution to his nation. Moreover, Paul is an internationally-leading computer science academic, in the field of human-computer interaction
Paul’s 15-year long project, cs4fn, short for “Computer science for fun”, created with Peter McOwan, is an enormous collection of ideas, insights, and resources that demonstrate and showcase the clever ideas from interdisciplinary computer science research, aimed primarily at school-age children. He brings these ideas out in several forms:
- The cs4fn magazine is used by thousands of schools, and has done more to improve the image of computer science in the minds of teachers and children than dozens of weighty reports. Personally written, edited, and produced by Paul, it is a free physical publication with the quality of a professional magazine. It is available online also for free, and is sent in print form to over 2,000 UK schools,
as well as many others abroad. The original magazine was for secondary school students, but he has more recently created a popular free magazine for primary school students too. [Note that print copies are available in the UK only, but PDFs of all back issues are available worldwide – Jo]
- The development of inspiring activities: His focus is on engaging activities away from computers that inspire people about interdisciplinary computer science whilst giving deep understanding of concepts in fun engaging ways: through games, puzzles, role play activities and magic tricks. He both performs these and makes them freely available to others. Over the last three years for example around 200,000 downloads of his activity sheets. They are used by teachers worldwide and have been incorporated into schemes such as BTs Barefoot resources, as well as similar resources in other countries.
- The cs4fn and Teaching London Computing (TLC) web sites are a tremendous online resource for teachers and children alike. Resource web sites are easy to conceive of but extremely hard to sustain. They need a constant stream of new material to keep the site vibrantly alive and Paul, with his late colleague Peter McOwan, has done just that. They have written thousands of articles and activity sheets for hundreds of activities. Between 2008 and 2013 there were over 1.5 million visits to the cs4fn website with almost 900,000 downloads.
- Teaching London Computing (TLC) is the sister web site of cs4fn. While cs4fn is article based telling engaging stories about research for young people, TLC provides a resource site specifically for teachers. It is based on material from cs4fn (and much more) but rather than presenting them as articles to read, TLC provides them in the form of activity sheets and explanations of their use in classrooms. It has visits from all over the world too, with now over a million visits since 2015 and 300,000 visitors. Downloads and visits to his websites come regularly from over 180 other countries.
- Computing Education research. The on-the-ground impact of cs4fn is impressive enough, but Paul has consistently drawn on this experience to learn principles, and explore hypotheses, and perform critical evaluation. That is, cs4fn is not simply a successful exercise in changing attitudes to computer science; it is a unique research platform, and Paul has published a number of research papers that build on this platform.His team has also used social sciences methodologies to investigate the way primary school children are taught to write programs, drawing on a comparison with the way they are taught to write English. This showed the importance of teaching design from the outset. This very recent work has been incorporated in to Continuing Professional Development courses for teachers and is already helping improve practice.
The raw material for all of this educational work is Paul’s seemingly endless stream of ideas on a huge range of topics, drawing on research in the sciences, engineering and arts and humanities. Every single one uses a compelling context to motivate the underlying idea (hence the “fun” part). Examples include:
- magic tricks (each with an explanation for how they work and how they link to computer science such as algorithms, human-computer interaction, formal proof, …);
- paper-folding puzzles and hexaflexagons (illustrating computational thinking, usability and formal methods);
- colour-by-number puzzles to teach primary school children a variety of concepts around image representation, with links to ancient history and the history of art;
- artificial intelligence (a typical one is “Let’s build a brain out of some pieces of paper and a length of string that can actually play Snap” …);
- anthropology (how techniques used to study gorillas in the mist can improve medical device design,…);
- cell biology and epidemiology (predicting cancer cures, games to study the spread of disease, understanding brain cells, …);
- medicine (machine learning in healthcare, avoiding medical error, …);
- animation (algorithms for doodling plants and CGI, animatronics, motion capture, …);
- robots (robots teaching sign language, why are robots naked?, creative robots, soft robotics, …);
- art (interactive art instillations, creative computers, …);
- music (eg ’How Madonna crashed the Internet’, how autotune works, music compression, ….);
- communication (e.g. how can someone with “locked-in syndrome” communicate? …); and
- astronomy and Space (planetary networks, robots controlling telescopes, finding stardust, …).
Paul has also placed a strong emphasis on diversity, providing a very large number of stories of the research of female role models through the magazines and website, as well as through posters. The special issues of the magazine he produced on women in computing led to a large number of requests for talks on diversity. He is currently extending this work to computing role models for the Black, LGBT+ and disabled communities.
Internationally, cs4fn is used in many other countries, and as a project is regarded as a world leader that others watch with envy. Only Tim Bell’s “Computer Science Unplugged” (from New Zealand) comes close and Paul is a major contributor to the unplugged movement too, as his Teaching London Computing resources show.
As an independent cross-check I consulted Tim Bell himself, who told me: “In the 25 years that I have been involved in computer science education, Paul Curzon’s work has been the most practical and accessible resource that I have used for helping school students and teachers to engage with the big ideas in computer science. Our own resource, Computer Science Unplugged, has picked up many of Paul’s ideas, which he has been generous in making available. Our Unplugged resources, along with our other resources we have developed for teachers, often refer to the CS4FN website. His work and my discussions with him have influenced my thinking on the subject. The UK is very fortunate to have Paul as a champion for the discipline, particularly during this period that schools are adopting the new computing curriculum.”
cs4fn aimed to both inspire students about interdisciplinary computer science worldwide, and educate school students about topics beyond the school syllabus, giving them a taste of the real academic discipline. The impact of the cs4fn magazine was seen immediately in a way that showed it really did inspire more students to take computer science. In the year immediately after the first issues were sent to schools across the UK applications to do computer science degrees at QMUL increased by 70%. They increased by a further 70% the following year and increases have continued for many years since.
Paul’s published book based on cs4fn material with McOwan has now been translated into German, Chinese and Russian. Cs4fn material has or is being also been translated, at the request of, or by others, in to German, Italian, Welsh, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish.
Paul, we salute you!