Computer Science without Computers

This is the last post, in a series of activities, that are designed to impart logic and computer science concepts without the use of expensive technology or one-on-one devices. Check out the previous posts about the game, Robot Turtles, extensions for Robot Turtles, the game of ‘Be the Robot’ and What’s Inside of a laptop.
computer science without a computer - workbooks

These are some resources I’ve found that teach logic and computer science skills – without a computer.

Since I am not a classically trained computer scientist (or programmer for that matter), my use of the term ‘computer science’ may differ from others (here’s a really great explanation of the differences). I use the term vaguely – to imply a lot of different computer-centered activities. That might include logical thinking, seeing things from a different perspective, noticing patterns, finding out about computer parts, learning about key programming concepts, such as repeat loops, and of course, using icon-based programming languages to write programs.

So, with that being said, I have gathered a lot of great materials and hands-on tools over the last few years, such as Lego WeDo kits, Ozobots and creative instruction with the icon-based language, Scratch. But, I have had times when I’ve needed activities that didn’t require a computer. I needed to teach computer science without computers. Sometimes these activities were used to fill a break in my coding or Robotics camps. Sometimes, I was asked to teach where there were few resources and only a couple of computers. We needed a way to rotate computer use, but still be working with programming concepts.

Computer Science Without Computers

This need led me to the DK Workbook, Computer Coding. This looks to be a companion to DK’s book, Help Your Child with Computer Programming, except that this slim workbook starts out by introducing the Python programming language, which I do not teach. Although I will be teaching a kids’ web design class this summer, most of my classes do not use text-based programming languages.

I know, we could have a whole other debate about how HTML isn’t a true programming language…but let’s hold off for now, shall we?

DK's book, Coding for Kids, is a good resource for kids who are ready to start using Python.

DK’s book, Coding for Kids, is a good resource for kids who are ready to start using Python.

If you skip ahead in the Coding workbook, there are some really cool exercises on “thinking like a robot” and writing out simple commands, such as ‘forward(50).’ I drew out some of these on the board and had us work together to complete them. Honestly, it wasn’t as much fun for the 9th graders who were my captive audience. They had a hard time making the connection to why this type of learning was important – and they weren’t intrinsically interested in coding. In that case, I really could have used some computers to set them free with Scratch. Usually, the free expression in Scratch can hook any reluctant teen programmer.

But alas, that wasn’t an option for a cash-strapped camp who wanted to offer some computer science programs. I did find a curriculum that looked interesting, but didn’t come across it until after my “no-computer” camp experience. This free “Computer Science-in-a-Box” curriculum is from the National Center for Women  & Information Technology. Although this curriculum is geared toward ages 9 – 14, I haven’t used it in my camps. It does seem a bit like “school” work and my campers are not so willing to take up paper and pencil during the summer. But, like most curriculum, I’m sure there will be some great insights that I can find to use with my students.

A good resource from Code.org.

A good resource from Code.org.

I’ve also looked over the curriculum from Code.org – “Intro to the Art of Computer Science.”  Both of the above items are well-researched, but most of the activities are too tedious or abstract for my younger students to appreciate or enjoy. Don’t get me wrong – I like the guides and learned a lot from them. I also think think they offer a lot of valuable information, but not for my age group (or for uninterested kids). They seem to be written for the computer scientist in mind – those kids who know they want to work with computers, have played with Scratch and maybe Python, and want to know everything about how binary works and how a computer thinks.

Many of the kids I encounter are unsure that they can even tell a computer what to do, so we have to find a way to break down the abstract concepts into something much more concrete. It’s why I love Scratch so much. Regardless, I do recommend the guides – if only as a way to gain more background knowledge and vocabulary for the teacher.

I would also recommend reading more about Seymour Papert and his thoughts on computers in schools and how children use them (or should use them). Palpert was at MIT, helped to develop the Lego Mindstorms concept and has left his lasting influence on the openness of creative learning, which is something that the creators of Scratch have carried forth into their teacher’s guide. I also think their article on computational thinking is well worth reading.

I am a huge fan of many of the workbooks from The Critical Thinking Co.

I am a huge fan of many of the workbooks from The Critical Thinking Co.

Since we are talking about abstract concepts – I am a huge fan of logic problems and really like the ones put out by the Critical Thinking Co.  Last summer, I made some copies for a few kids in my camps because I knew that they would finish up faster than the other kids and might like a good challenge. Some of my other students found these too difficult and had a bit of a fixed mindset about discovering the solutions. Either way, having them look at information in a new way (which is what logic problems do) is a great skill for any kid (or adult) to try.

Lauren Ipsum

Finally, this book has been sitting on my shelves for many months now…just waiting for the right opportunity to read it aloud to my six and ten-year-old sons. Of course, we had to get through The Magician’s Nephew, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and now, we need to finish The Odyssey (abridged), but we’ll get to it because I’m really looking forward to reading a fantastical story that has computer science elements.

All told, there are a number of resources to impart logic and computer science concepts – without a computer. As noted above, you can check out my previous posts on Robot Turtles, extensions for Robot Turtles, Be the Robot and Making a Paper Laptop.

Unfortunately for those schools (or camps) that do not have the resources for a computer lab, these non-computer activities will only take you so far with computer programming. As far as other materials that teach “programming,” I am a huge fan of the 1.0 Ozobots since they have their own “color” language and students can use regular markers and a large sheet of paper to write some programs. They don’t require as much space as laptops or desktops, and students could work together as a group, so it would cost less money. To see how I’ve used Ozobots in my camps, check out “Using Ozobots in a Classroom” and “Making Maps with Ozobots.”

A student is testing out the programming codes for an Ozobot.

A student is testing out the programming codes for an Ozobot.