Kevin Murrell is Director of the UK's National Museum of Computing based at Bletchley Park. I caught up with Kevin and he kindly agreed to be interviewed, providing us with insights into how he started out in computing, the museum's work with young people, and what we can do to help ensure that the Raspberry Pi is a hit with students (hint: hardware designers have a major role to play!)
Can you tell us how you were introduced to the field of computing?
My secondary school had an ASR33 Teletype connected via an 110 baud GPO acoustic modem to the Open University and a small group of enthusiastic pupils learnt to program in BASIC out of normal school hours.
I was 17 in 1977 when the Nascom 1 computer kit was launched, and bought my kit from Henrys radio shop on Edgware Road, London. I assembled the kit and it worked first time, and then set about programming in Z80 assembly language.
At university I was taught PASCAL and FORTRAN programming on an ICL1904S. The department also had a PDP8 which wasn’t used, so I found the manuals and began programming that in machine code – an easy step given my Z80 background.
First job was programming an 18 bit British minicomputer called the BCL Molecular in assembly code.
Building on the previous question, how does the situation for young people now differ from when you were growing up?
Relatively simple computer systems were available to be used and programmed. Machine code and assembly code on those systems was relatively easily manageable, and simple interpreted high level languages were often built in. Basic ‘scroll and roll’ programs were quick to construct and we spent more time on squeezing code into the available space than worrying about the user interface – not that there was any real choice!
I also grew up in a period when technology was exciting: the Apollo space-program, Concorde, home electronics construction, DIY Hi-Fi systems etc. It was easy to buy components and create projects. There was a huge variety of electronics magazines and computer magazines – many of a practical nature.
Today, young people have access to ready-made applications and the focus is on using or consuming applications, and not developing or creating them. It's fast-food computing ...
In your opinion, how important are computer science skills, both in general and to the economy?
I think computer skills in the sense of a young person being able to operate ‘off the shelf’ standard packages such as word-processors and spreadsheets are important, but schools should not spend more than a few days imparting those skills – they are not an end in themselves. I would expect them to be sensible in their use of the Internet and have an understanding of the sources of information and to be critical of the information they read.
Numeracy, accurate spelling and good grammar to communicate effectively and unambiguously are much more important than being able to use office tools.
Regarding computer science skills, I think an understanding of the art of programming and systems analysis is more important than a skill in a particular language. The best programmers I know come from an arts background and had never seen a computer until day one of their programming course.
I think the ability to distinguish between what is developed through programming skills and what is simply a sophisticated use of an off the shelf package is important. An understanding of how applications come into being is important. Many young visitors to The National Museum of Computing have no idea that someone with a bright idea simply sits down and writes an app for their phone.
Do you think that we have seen an overall decline in such skills in the UK over the last 20 or so years?
No. Nearly all young people are knowledgeable about using computers – no one is afraid of breaking one any more. They are all skilled at using office packages and email. There isn’t the worry about using a computer and learning something new. I am quite sure the bulk of this is learnt from ‘playing’ at home rather than taught by schools.
I agree that 20+ years ago some school children would have been taught BASIC and some would have gone on to A level computing, but the numbers were so low I don’t think has made any practical difference to the UK.
The general lack of literacy and numeracy is a much worse blight than any lack of knowledge of programming. Employers need bright intelligent people with analytical skills that they can use to solve problems – being able to design and write computer programs is secondary.
What opportunity do you think the Raspberry Pi presents us with?
I think it's a very exciting unknown quantity at the moment and we are about to discover its impact.
What can engineers and computer scientists do to help ensure that the Raspberry Pi is a success in education?
Make the hardware open source. Quickly produce a range of plug in boards with a range of I/O ports such as A to D and D to A converters, temperature sensors, GPS receivers, SMS devices, and parallel ports with simple relays attached.
I can’t see students using the Pi to create games when much better games than they could ever write on the Pi are readily available to them on their phones and consoles at home. I think they could become quickly disillusioned when they realise quite how much hard work this is!
I think a better way to enthuse them is to use the Pi to control other hardware. This might be writing a routine to control a set of traffic lights or the run a small model railway. Even flashing a light on and off can excite students.
Must ensure a modern, potentially sophisticated, language is available – any one of the curly bracket languages. A very slick edit, compile, run and debug interface is vital. I would like to see a c# or Java like language wrapped up to look interpreted.
Simple low level programming tools for control – an Arduino sketch is a good example.
Can you tell us about the museum's work with young people?
We welcome between 15 to 25 school parties each month to the museum – the groups range from 10 to 40 in size and include pupils aged from 13 to 18.
We spend a little time on the history of computing, but primarily make use of the exhibits at the museum to explain concepts that are still relevant to today. For example, how disks work and why they (still) fail and hence the need for backups, and why having more RAM in a computer makes a difference.
All the pupils are aware of a disk in their computer and that sometimes it will fail, but having one the size of a small washing machine is easier to demonstrate and explain!
For A level students we have produced manuals and material to allow them to prepare programs for the PDP8 computer in machine code and when they visit the museum, run that code on a real machine. Using the large flashing light, slightly dangerous, machines adds a frisson of excitement for the pupils!
For first year undergraduate computer scientists we have run courses that simply show what components go into a standard PC – the first time many had seen ‘inside the box’.
We have a large classroom equipped with some 20 BBC microcomputers. These are excellent machines for teaching because they ‘boot’ straight away, they can be turned on and off without damage, they have a simple well documented language built in, pupils cannot access the internet or waste time playing with other installed programs (there aren’t any), and have a range of accessible I/O ports included.
It is simple to hook up a switch and light or a potentiometer to an A to D input and demonstrate the principles of computer control using a BBC micro.
How can those interested help with the great work that you are doing?
We are keen to grow the education service we provide but are limited by the lack of suitably qualified volunteers to support the scheme. The museum has a full-time dedicated learning coordinator planning the material, and more help would let us develop the scheme and welcome more school parties.
Undoubtedly, more funds are always required to allow us to see more school parties and keep the costs to them down to a minimum.
Does the museum have any plans involving Raspberry Pi?
Nothing firm as yet, but we would very much like to incorporate it in our offering to schools. For example, it would be marvellous to send away every school group with a Raspberry Pi, but of course we need the resources for that.
We have plans to use the Arduino range of single board machines in classes.
Will you be buying a Raspberry Pi yourself, and if so what do you plan to do with it?
I have one on order, but was very disappointed to discover that the device simply isn’t available yet. We need to make sure that the lessons of Clive Sinclair's launch of the Sinclair MK14 in 1977 have been learnt!
Thank you for your time, Kevin!
To find out more about the National Museum of Computing see their website.Like this Leave a comment