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PyconUK 2013 Roundup

ἃ γὰρ δεῖ μαθόντας ποιεῖν, ταῦτα ποιοῦντες μανθάνομεν, οἷον οἰκοδομοῦντες οἰκοδόμοι γίνονται καὶ κιθαρίζοντες κιθαρισταί

We learn an art or craft by doing the things that we shall have to do when we have learnt it: for instance, men become builders by building houses, harpers by playing on the harp.

Aristotle - Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, 1103a.

Last weekend was PyconUK. You can read all about how successful it was elsewhere. I want to focus on the education track: two days that brought together teachers, students and developers. This was the second year we'd run an education track and this time round it was sponsored by Bank of America.

I've been to many educational conferences, both when I was a teacher and, more recently, as a developer interested in education. Apart from a few exceptions I usually feel frustrated by the lack of concrete and tangible outcomes from such events. They end up as people talking shop and complaining about the current system concluding with a call to action that "something must be done (think of the children)".

Of course something must be done.

Such meetings are where one expects plans to come together for "something to be done". Having the space to reflect with, learn from and challenge each other is how we discover the concrete details of the "something to be done". Unfortunately, "something must be done" often turns into "you can't fight the system" or some other similar acknowledgement of defeat ("life's too short" and "I'm too busy coping" are two other variations). This is a shame because such concessions are more a reflection of a person's point of view than it is on their ability to do something.

So we asked ourselves, "what could be done about this state of affairs?" and replied with the PyconUK education track.

Our outlook was simple:

  • Interesting things happen when you bring together a diverse group of smart people who are all passionate about the same subject (in this case programming in education). Diversity is the antidote to educational groupthink.
  • Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux and one of the world's most celebrated programmers once said that, "talk is cheap, show me the code". We wanted to focus on practical and immediately useful activities. Close collaboration between teachers and developers was key to making this happen (more on this below).
  • People work best when they're having fun. Remember your favourite teacher? You probably don't think of them because they were good at classroom discipline, marking or producing spiffy lesson plans (not that these may be important). Rather, I'd wager they were your favourite because they infected you with their own enthusiasm for their subject. We wanted teachers, students and developers to leave PyconUK in a highly contagious state.

When I watched this video from teacher Ben Smith I knew we'd struck gold.

Here we have teachers and developers collaborating, asking questions of each other (there's no such thing as a stupid question in this situation) and producing something that can be easily adapted to work in the classroom.

Another highlight from the teachers was Vikki Dodd and her colleagues eloquently describing to the massed ranks of programmers the sort of hurdles, expectations and successes that a UK teacher of ICT encounters. I'm proud to say the most common response from the developers was, "how can we help?" to which the answer was to become a STEM ambassador.

Martin O'Hanlon deserves a special mention since his contribution brought everyone together in the most practical of ways: he inspired us by describing how to use Minecraft as a sort of programmable digital Lego via Python and a Raspberry Pi. In the video below Martin succinctly describes and shows us what we got up to.

We wanted to involve kids in our education track because many of us organising and attending PyconUK were first inspired by programming when we were kids. Put simply, we wanted to inspire the next generation of programmers by letting them play with code in the company of contagious teachers and expert Pythonistas.

Happily PyconUK has been graced by the presence of Alan O'Donohoe for three years in a row. He's a fellow Pythonista and, more importantly, an inspiring teacher who is the source of the world-wide phenomenon known as Raspberry Jam. We had, in our midst, the most qualified person in the world to pull off an inspiring day of programming for kids.

We were not let down.

Rather than describe what went on I think it best to let the kids (young and old) tell us themselves:

Alan also took some photographs of the event.

I'd like to finish with two points:

  • The gender split among the kids was 50/50. This bodes well.
  • Everyone who attended PyconUK 2013 (be they teachers or students learning Python, or developers learning how to teach) learned by doing.

Perhaps that dead Greek philosopher was right. Rather than talking about things, collaboratively doing stuff leads to tangible and concrete results like infecting teachers, students and developers with an enthusiasm for programming.

In case you're wondering, we'll be repeating the education track next year. It'll be one of many events where teachers, students and developers come together to collaboratively inspire each other. Why not try Alan's next Raspberry Jamboree if you want to get involved..?