LERO outreach and education manager encourages learning from Scratch

28 Nov 2014

Clare McInerney, outreach and education manager at LERO

Irish software engineering research centre LERO is using the intuitive Scratch programme to inspire school students to code. Outreach and education manager Clare McInerney spoke to Claire O’Connell.

How do you get school kids interested in coding? How do you help teachers encourage them, even if sometimes the students know more than they do? And how can school-leavers have a more realistic take on studying software development at third-level?

Those are some of the questions that have been exercising Clare McInerney, outreach and education manager with LERO in Limerick. 

As its main remit, the centre, which has been operating since 2007 and was recently announced as a new Science Foundation Ireland ‘supercentre’, wants to improve the quality and reliability of software.

“We work with software companies and we design tools and methodologies and processes, the under-the-hood stuff that helps developers write better software,” explains McInerney, who is based at the University of Limerick.

That ‘under-the-hood’ stuff is often invisible but it becomes apparent when things go wrong, like when a bank’s IT system fails or an aircraft’s navigation system stops working. “Those are the kinds of scenarios we are trying to avoid by researching better ways to write the software,” she says.

Scratching a coding itch

Her outreach work involves working with schools, industry and the general public, and one of the most enduring programmes the centre has run is Scratch.ie, which encourages school students to learn how to code in a fun and intuitive way using the programming language Scratch, developed at MIT.

“When we started thinking about this five years ago, we were trying to look at tools that would introduce people to software development or programming,” says McInerney.

“Scratch had just come out and it was breaking new ground. It is colour-coded, you put pieces of code together like a jigsaw and you don’t have to worry about writing syntax and making sure colons and semicolons are in the correct place. So it is a simple entry point into programming and it offers instant gratification, you can see the results immediately.”

Lesson plans from LERO

LERO set about developing lesson plans that could be used in schools – initially transition-year students engaged with it, then teachers started to use the plans with younger secondary-school students and LERO has now developed lesson plans for primary schools, too, notes McInerney. 

“We develop training materials at LERO and we train trainers, who in turn go out to education centres and train the teachers, so we have a scaling-up effect,” she says. 

Around 2,000 teachers have already undertaken the training in conjunction with the Professional Development Service for Teachers.

“The teachers can do courses in the summer,” explains McInerney. “And we talk about how it’s OK if the 10-year-old student knows this stuff better than you do, the kids who are experts can work with the younger kids or mentor kids in the class who haven’t seen it before.”

Challenge to learning

In order to do the lesson plans, the students need access to computers, and this can be a stumbling block in some cases, notes McInerney.

“One restriction at the primary level is the equipment set-up – it is very varied. Some schools will have laptops on trolleys and others will have one computer and a whiteboard. So that’s can be a bit of a challenge.”

But the feedback from teachers, students and the annual Scratch competition shows they have tapped into an interest, and McInerney hears more children talking about the computer programme.

“We just ran a series of Celebrate Science events in Limerick and I met a lot of parents,” she says. “If I asked them have you heard of Scratch, they would often say ‘no’ but then the children pipe up they are doing that in school.”

Goal of Scratch.ie

McInerney’s own experience with computers involved a BBC Micro at home, and then at third-level she studied computer science, linguistics and German at Trinity College Dublin. Next she completed a masters degree in software engineering at Harvard University and managed software projects in Canada before returning to Ireland and starting with LERO. 

One hope is that the Scratch.ie programme will help to boost awareness among kids (and in turn parents) about coding and give them a more realistic appreciation of studying it after they leave school, she says: “Part of what we were trying to address at second-level education is enabling people to make informed choices.”

For more details, go to Scratch.ie

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication