He is still revelling in the fact that his dream has come true, with Education Minister Hekia Parata announcing digital technology is to be formally integrated into the NZ Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa at the recent NZTech Advance Education Technology Summit in Auckland.

It is the first change to the NZ Curriculum since its introduction in 2007, and it is an outcome of the Government’s Science and Society Strategic Plan A Nation of Curious Minds: Te Whenua Hihiri i te Mahara.

Bell is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, NZ, whose main research interest at present, is computer science education.

He was invited by the Ministry of Education to be part of the consultation process for the curriculum change and he has been running computer science pilots at Christchurch primary schools in typical classes.

The positive feedback from teachers and students far exceeded anyone’s expectations, adding weight to its integration to the curriculum, Bell says.

Bell’s involvement with schools began over two decades ago, when the computer scientist visited his children’s school to talk about what his job entailed.

“I developed ideas of how to do that without actually bringing a computer into the classroom,” Bell says.

After collaborating with colleagues Mike Fellows (now based in Norway) and Ian Witten (Waikato), Computer Science Unplugged (CS Unplugged) was born. 

CS Unplugged is a collection of free online learning activities that teach Computer Science through engaging games and puzzles using cards, string, crayons and lots of running around.

 “With the increase of computer and device use, many students have become users of computers but do not understand how the computer actually works and everything stops at the screen,” Bell says.

CS Unplugged combats this by encouraging cognitive thinking with minimum instruction by teachers.

The collection was originally intended as a resource for outreach and extension, but with the adoption of computing and computational thinking into many classrooms around the world, it is now widely used for teaching.

Its books and videos have been translated into around 20 languages and Bell has received many awards for his work in education, including the ETH (Zurich) ABZ International honorary medal for fundamental contributions in Computer Science education in 2013, the IITP (NZ) Excellence in IT Education award and the President's Award for Contribution to the IT Profession in 2014.

Thanks to sponsorship from Google Inc., Bell and his team have been able to create associated resources such as the videos, which are intended to help teachers see how the activities work.

All of the activities provided are open source, so teachers can copy, share and modify the material.

The CS Unplugged team has also received a recent grant from Microsoft Seattle to extend CS Unplugged and the related “CS Field Guide”, Bell adds.

Just as CS Unplugged is utilised by teachers internationally, the resources are readily available for NZ teachers teaching computer science to high school students after the subject was introduced in 2011, and looking ahead, for primary school teachers to support their lessons once the subject is fully integrated into the NZ Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa in 2018.

“Having computer science as part of the curriculum from Year 1 is fantastic – the earlier the child is exposed to it the better.

“It is an increasingly digital world and children need to be informed of what is happening behind the scenes; they become informed citizens; and the career opportunities are great.”

Children often misunderstand what computer science is all about – it’s not only about how computers function, but about diversity, people and communicating messages to people, Bell adds.

“You write software in a team so the next team member can use it - to create a successful software programme you have to be aware of the users on the other end.”

Computers and its science have been a part of Bell’s life since high school in the 70s. 

“For me as a teenage boy I was hooked - it was fun and I could see the bigger picture.”

But the subject is not so popular among girls and some minority groups.

By introducing it at school early, students soon gain an understanding of what it is about and grow to love it, Bell says, and this will have a big impact on the issue of lack of diversity in the field.

It is not only students who sometimes struggle with the subject, but also teachers, so professional development needs to be put in place to teach teachers how to engage their students with the subject.

In NZ there has been little support for professional development up until now for this area. 

Although special initiatives such as the Google-funded CS 4 High Schools (CS4HS), a free one-week training programme for teachers, have had a significant impact.

A pilot CS 4 Primary Schools (CS4HS, training for primary school teachers) has gained a lot of interest, although as it is an entirely new topic that has not been taught at this level before in NZ, something bigger is needed, Bell says.

Passionate about empowering teachers by providing the means to teach computer science effectively, Bell will continue to develop resources to give children the tools to tackle the new digital domain.

See Tim Bell at the ACER Research Conference, August 7 - 9, Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre , Brisbane, Australia.