Introducing CS through Unplugged Activities

I love starting off the year with an unplugged activity.  Without the technical difficulties of logging in or setting up a computer on the first day, we get to build a classroom culture of collaboration, exploration, and fun.

Treasure Hunt

Traditionally, I’ve kicked off my fifth grade curriculum with CSUnplugged’s activity Finite State Automata.  Themed around a pirate treasure hunt, the students get to move around the room as they build a map of ship routes.  First, I introduce the activity using CSUnplugged’s example which is a smaller set of nodes.  Then, I give each student a map and send them off in intervals to Pirate’s Island where they get to decide which ship to take.  Each island has two ships leaving from it – A and B.  As they learn where the ship will take them, they connect the nodes with a directed edge on their map.

CSUnplugged suggests stationing a student at each island to give directions, but in order to get all the students moving around the room, I simply cover each of the destinations with a sticky note labelled A or B and hang them up around the room.  Students are honest about only checking one and very secretive about not sharing.  They get to try a different route eventually anyway!  Once everyone has gotten to the treasure by a few different routes, we come back together to see who found the shortest route and discuss.  Though CSUnplugged relates this activity to following menu options, students are excellent at relating it back to all sorts of computer science topics including how a computer follows directions, how a computer might send a message, and multiple ways to achieve the same goal.  All of which provide excellent lead-ins to what computer science is and why they’re learning about it! 

  • slides
  • posters for around the room – cover the two destinations with sticky notes labelled A and B

Sending Encoded Messages

This year, I wanted to use social distancing to my advantage and modified CSUnplugged’s Squeezing pictures into codes to showcase how computers send messages.  In this activity, students are partnered up and “send messages” by speaking it to their partner.  The receiver of the message follows a protocol to shade boxes to form a picture.  Activity 1 sends messages in binary code and Activity 2 uses run-length encoding.  In between, students have the opportunity to discuss ways to make the code easier to send and more efficient.  This activity gets the class discussing binary code, the potential for lost data, data encoding schemes, compression, abstraction, and how messages are sent.  This was an excellent introduction to so many aspects of computer science! 

  • worksheet – Note, partner A and partner B worksheet are both included here, copy two-sided

CSUnplugged provides a range of extension activities for both of these as well!

What happens next?

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