Cracking the code

Inspiring the next generation of software developers

On International Women’s Day back in 2017, we were having a conversation about the lack of women in technology. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, in the school year 2018/2019, only 18.5% of Computer Science students in the UK were women.

Steve had been a STEM Ambassador and had started doing some public engagement activities at the Cambridge Science Festival. We (Harriet and Steve) thought that setting up a Code Club in a local primary school, where children could learn coding once a week during lunchtime,  was a way of reversing the lack of female software developers in science one small step at a time!

Students often work together to solve their problems

Students often work together to solve their problems

Steve & Harriet helped get students set up with user accounts before their code creations began

Steve & Harriet helped get students set up with user accounts before their code creations began

Students visit the Wellcome Genome Campus for a tour of the (noisy!) Data Centre

Students visit the Wellcome Genome Campus for a tour of the (noisy!) Data Centre

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Students often work together to solve their problems

Students often work together to solve their problems

Steve & Harriet helped get students set up with user accounts before their code creations began

Steve & Harriet helped get students set up with user accounts before their code creations began

Students visit the Wellcome Genome Campus for a tour of the (noisy!) Data Centre

Students visit the Wellcome Genome Campus for a tour of the (noisy!) Data Centre

We chose to work with Harston and Newton Community Primary School - where computer skills weren’t being actively taught. The sessions took place every Monday lunchtime and lasted for 40 minutes with 10 to 12 children aged 9 to 11. Students chose what coding languages to work on: Scratch, HTML and CSS or Python with different difficulty levels. Sessions were not lectured or demonstrated but had a learning-by-doing approach with games and puzzles provided by the mother Code Club organisation

When we first started, the children struggled with a lack of direction - we were perhaps a little passive. As time went on, we both became more confident: providing the students with direction and knowing when to say no, which as a result made the sessions more engaged and productive. The biggest challenge was time - ours and theirs. Lack of formal IT education in the school curriculum was quite a challenge at first, as there was limited IT support in the school. Sometimes, the necessary software had not been installed, for example, or computers were old or simply not charged up ready. The Code Club ‘host’, the teacher we worked with, became a fundamental link between us and the school, facilitating communication or simply reminding the students each Monday that it was Code Club. 

In the end, the club ran for two years, from September 2017 to July 2019 as the children coded their way through a variety of projects, quizzes and games. Pupils were eager to learn and almost a third of them expressed an interest in choosing a degree in computer science in the future.

"Code Club is the best place you could ever be. You get to make stuff using the wonders of coding, computing and lots of funny words. Oh, and sprites."

(A student)

Harriet: My confidence has grown in lots of ways. I would happily now mock together a presentation for the school, class or parents. Before Code Club that would have been so daunting for me. I didn’t expect the experience to be so rewarding, teaching the children has been a pleasure; they are switched on, engaged, honest and respectful. I didn’t expect them to be so thoughtful and they are quick to praise me and Steve.

My own understanding of software development has increased from working at the Code Club. Seeing code through the kids fresh eyes every week during the project has changed my approach to coding. It has made me understand that debugging is an essential part of my work, for example, and that I just have to learn to love bugs!

And it has been great to work as a team with Steve. Working together, you need to be reliable, supportive and able to share the workload and pressure equally whilst displaying a united front. This has been an invaluable experience.

Harriet Craven, Senior Software Developer at the Wellcome Sanger Institute

Harriet Craven, Senior Software Developer at the Wellcome Sanger Institute

Steve Inglis, Senior Software Developer at the Wellcome Sanger Institute

Steve Inglis, Senior Software Developer at the Wellcome Sanger Institute

Steve: I am surprised by the level of respect that we have gained from our colleagues, teachers, peers and, especially the children. It has given me personal satisfaction to give something back to the community. I didn’t realise how much I would enjoy teaching and how engaging the children would be. It has made me look at my profession differently. I have gained more respect for what we do and how important it is. To teach programming to children, especially those who do not have a natural ability, involves breaking it down into simple steps, making sure you know your subject and making it fun. You need to be patient and creative, as you sometimes will need to explain a concept several times in different ways. 

I am so proud of the children and how hard they worked. When we did the assembly they all stood up and showed their work. Their excitement and enthusiasm was plain to see and there were even some gasps from the audience when they started playing games that they had built. It was a moving moment.

As an organisation, we struggle to find good developers and most software developers do not see the Wellcome Genome Campus as an attractive place to work even though we are at the cutting edge. We would like to see our involvement in public engagement as a way of changing that. 

"My child loves Code Club. Coding has taught them about how to approach problem solving, work with others, trial and error, perseverance, the importance of every detail and focus - it has all been very positive. And not just for their work on computers either - it has increased their confidence in other subjects too. A big thank you to the Sanger Institute for supporting this initiative."

(A parent)

Steve and Harriet took their skills out on the road for Lifelab in 2019

Steve and Harriet took their skills out on the road for Lifelab in 2019

Harriet: We really wanted to attract girls to the Code Club. It was hard at first. I went and gave talks to several year groups at the beginning of the first term in order to promote the club. We were unsuccessful so I spoke at a full school assembly in the first week of the Spring Term and then two girls decided to join the group who stayed on for the whole of the school year and were eager to continue with the coding sessions. Scientific developments are increasing at such a rate there aren’t enough developers to keep up. Specifically, teams are struggling to find women developers, so Code Club is a way of inspiring future developers, specifically females. 

We brought the whole group to visit the campus. We wanted to show them that Code Club is related to the science on site, as software supports all genomic research.