By Delia Kench
For 20 years at St Benedict’s College in Bedfordview, Johannesburg, some top computer programmers have passed through the school’s Information Technology (IT) department.
Boys taking IT are taught to become independent critical thinkers. Their growing ability to solve problems innovatively is highly valued. In 2015, 36 boys wrote the Independent Examinations Board1 exit exam and produced 21 distinctions and an average of 82%.
These results are the product of sound educational principles and vision. South Africa is one of the few countries where programming is to be found on some high school syllabi. Many countries favour the development of more general computer skills in schools, and leave programming to be covered in tertiary education.2 There is, however, currently a worldwide shift afoot to introduce programming to learners at a younger age, with initiatives such as the ‘Hour of Code’, which encourages both children and adults to write a piece of code.
Coding from the word go
At St Benedict’s, programming is not seen in isolation but is considered integral to a boy’s education. The school has developed its own IT syllabus and the teaching of programming begins in Grade 0. IT staff throughout the school have collaborated to develop a syllabus that addresses all computer concepts, and each year includes an entire term of programming.
The curriculum is designed to be enjoyable and visual. From grades 1 to 3, boys turn simple statements into code using Purple Mash.4 These coding tools reinforce basic language constructs like nouns and verbs, and sequencing. In grades 4, 5 and 6, boys learn to use technology as they build LEGO robots, and then programme these robots in Grade 6 and Grade 7 using LEGO Mindstorms.
From Gogga to robots
Grade 8 boys write code using a game called Code Combat,6 in which they must move a warrior through a series of obstacles.
Delia Kench, the school’s head of IT and academic innovation, works with Grade 10 boys using her co-authored Gogga programme7 (‘gogga’ is a South African slang term used to refer to an insect) to introduce Java. Gogga can be used with Java8 or Delphi9 and draws on the educational philosophy of the widely acclaimed programming language LOGO, developed by a world-renowned South African academic currently based part time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Seymour Papert.10 “Gogga is a ‘bug’ that draws patterns on the screen according to programme instructions, and boys need to see their programme running in order to understand the consequences of their code,” says Kench.
Grade 10 boys are required to programme a robot to move through a maze unaided, using the BOE BOT toolkit.11 The boys install infrared sensors on the robot and use these to navigate through the maze. This project introduces boys to electronics and begins a journey of solving real-world problems by applying programming skills.
The best showcased at St Benedict’s
In grades 11 and 12, boys code games and solve problems in Java that integrate databases or text files. The boys are encouraged to connect these games in a multiplayer environment using the network, and by developing mobile apps.
St Benedict’s has introduced an IT Showcase competition, where pupils from both independent and state schools showcase their best matric projects. The showcase is judged by university
lecturers and experts in the IT industry.
1. See: http://ieb.co.za/.
2. See, for example: http://techland.time.com/2012/07/16/can-we-fix-computerscience- education-in-america/ and http://www.edutopia.org/discussion/codedsuccess- benefits-learning-program.
3. See: https://www.2simple.com/purple-mash-support.
4. See: http://www.lego.com/en-us/mindstorms/?domainredir= mindstorms.lego.com.
5. See: https://codecombat.com/.
6. See: http://www.funworks.co.za/AboutUs.aspx.
7. See: https://java.com/en/download/faq/whatis_java.xml.
8. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delphi_%28programming_language%29.
9. See, for example: http://www.papert.org/ and http://web.media.mit.edu/~papert/.
10. See: https://www.parallax.com/product/boe-bot-robot.