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Stéphane Menegaldo - 22/03/2018

“Semaine des mathématiques”: Primary school children discover computer science without computers!

© S. Menegaldo - Inria

On the occasion of the Week of Mathematics, a group of scientists and popularization specialists from Inria Bordeaux - Sud-Ouest went to meet primary teachers and pupils from the School of Saint-Genès, in Bordeaux. Almost 180 schoolchildren have get to know fundamental notions of computer science, without using any screen or keyboard.

The “unplugged” activities (article in French) are games and reasoning exercises made of simple elements (sticks, strings, nails…) but that allow to tackle various notions such as algorithms, complexity or strategy. These activities integrate thoroughly in the school programs that emphasis more and more on the inclusion of computer science learning from an early age.

The animators first exposed the rules and the goal of each activity to the kids (for the Game of Nim, for example: winning by taking the last remaining stick) and then let them manipulate and getting familiar with the exercises. Boys and girls were enthusiastic about the game, in the attempt to discover the ever-winning strategy of the Nim game, the ordering method for the pancakes of the Psycho Pancake Maker or to realize the number of hours / days / years it would take to explore all the possible routes of the Traveling Salesman…

But the session would not have been complete if it did not have ended with an appropriation of the reasoning by the children. The animators have indeed asked the children to explain, in their own words, the strategy they have discovered to be sure to win, or their pancake ordering method. Many could then help their classmates to “execute” the sorting algorithm or become aware of the differences between a “good” and fast solution and “the best” solution that can take years to find…

Making children aware of computer science concepts do not aim to encourage precocious vocations, but to give them the keys of comprehension for an essential aspect of their future grown-up life. Seeing the concentration and many questions of the kids, we could easily say that we’ve reached the goal!

Keywords: Unplugged Popularization Science

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