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A (Code) Cracking Day at The National Museum of Computing

Our visit began with an introductory briefing setting the historical context and significance of WW2, cryptology and the history of computing also introducing mathematical notions. After this, various objects such as an early calculator, mobile phones, and storage devices were offered around for the students to hold and observe.

We then split into three sub-groups and set off with our tour guides to begin the day’s activities. Groups one and two took it in turns to see the world's oldest original working computer and the Colossus, which is the world's first programmable electronic computer. It was this computer that helped to crack the Lorenz-encrypted messages between Hitler and his generals in World War II, and the Harwell Dekatron Computer (also known as WITCH). Students were able to appreciate just how far computers have come and how privileged they are to have access to the technology available to them.

They also spent part of the morning time looking at some mainframe computers and were taken on a journey of computing history from the post-war period to the present day. Finally topping this off with a round of vintage video gaming (or at least trying to get in a turn when the teachers weren’t hogging the games!).

Group three spent the first part of the day in their classroom for a hands-on workshop. This is equipped with 15 BBC microcomputers, bringing back memories for any adult who remembers spending hours typing lines of BASIC into a computer in the 1980s. During this session, students were inputting a 28 line code into the BBC microcomputer, to produce a "snake" game and then modify it afterward. The absence of a "copy and paste” function caused alarm for some students! They became frustrated with the method for correcting errors - which was just to re-type the line. It may seem peculiar to use BBC computers from the 1980s but the advantages are that the students really do have to go back to "first principles." Moreover, since they run at a much slower pace, you can often actually see the computer processing the instructions. There are also no distractions, due to the absence of the internet and other programs.

After the BBC BASIC coding students spent some time working on a text based artificial intelligence program (similar to SIRI), the program allowed a user to ask the system a question, to which the system would provide a predefined answer, that the students had previously programmed.

After a half hour lunch, in which time the gift shop was open for students to purchase souvenirs, groups one and two had the workshops and group three went on the museum tour.

The day was a marvellous mix of modern world history (particularly WW2), computing and mathematics. The three guides were extremely knowledgeable, enthusiastic and engaging. As a result, the atmosphere in the museum was infectious and it gave the tour its wonder. It was evident from their talks that they were genuinely interested in the subject matter. The delivery was at times humorous and always insightful. The various practical demonstrations and physical objects to see and handle were varied and relevant to the content. The content was original and smoothly tied several subjects together. It also went beyond the national curriculum and was all the better for it.

Overall it was a fantastic day and all who attended enjoyed themselves immensely.

Ms. A Donachie – IT Teacher


Posted: 2017-03-03 11:46:46
Last Edited: 2017-03-10 09:59:24