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  • Katy Pallister

Maths and Computing Awardee 2020: Dr Sue Sentance

“I would never have picked up a computer in my bedroom in a million years”

Dr Sue Sentance is Chief Learning Officer at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, and a visiting lecturer in Computer Science Education at King’s College London. Sentance has dedicated her career to improving the way we teach and learn computing in school; from creating her world-renowned teaching approach called PRIMM, to supporting teachers in their professional development. In fact, it was her own experiences in formal education, that led Sentance to discover computing in the first place.

“I was educated in Scotland, and when I arrived at university when I was 17, having done Scottish Highers, I just couldn't keep up,” Sentance said. “So, I looked for some subjects that nobody had done at school. I was always really good at math and really good at languages, so I picked up computer science and linguistics, and that's what I did in my degree. And it just clicked. Beforehand, I just wanted to be a singer or an actress or do something crafty. I would never have picked up a computer in my bedroom in a million years, but actually meeting computer science through formal education and realising it was what I was good at was really the big thing for me.”

Following a few years working as a computer programmer and a Master’s in Knowledge-based systems at the University of Edinburgh, Sentance then embarked on a PhD in Artificial Intelligence. “I fell pregnant one month into my PhD and had a baby after year one, but I still finished in three years. There were not many women around in the AI department at that time and I certainly was the only one with nappies under my desk and running to get trains to pick up my son from childcare! I was one of my supervisor’s first PhD students and she was just super supportive in my particularly unusual circumstances. She really believed in me and supported me in finishing the PhD on time.”

“I've had a very squiggly career”

After her PhD, Sentance spent some further time in academia before transitioning into teaching. “Academia was really cruel to me then. I felt really penalised when I tried to go part-time, and dealing with the expectations of being a woman in academia in the 90s with a young family was really hard,” Sentance explained. “As a result, I've had a very squiggly career. Not many people know that I even trained to be a mental health nurse for a little while! After working at the University of Cambridge, I became a secondary school teacher because it suited having three young children. I really want to encourage women in squiggly careers that it's okay if you don’t have a straightforward path - it’s more common than you think.”

Ultimately, Sentance’s ‘squiggly career’ equipped her with the best tools possible to help embed Computing into the curriculum in England. “I did computer science and AI, I had taught computing and also taken qualifications in education, so I was in the right place when all this activity was going on about getting Computing into the curriculum. And I just kind of capitalised on that. From 2011, I started running Python professional development for teachers, I set up, and then I started the BCS Certificate in Computer Science Teaching. I just saw opportunities to start things just because I was there at the right time. It's been really exciting seeing the journey of computer science education.”

“We don’t need to have students endure failure after failure”

In 2017, back in academia, Sentance published the globally-adopted PRIMM (Predict, Run, Investigate, Modify, Make) method – an approach for teachers to use when planning programming lessons and activities to ensure they support learners at all stages. “We know that many students find learning to program difficult,” Sentance said. “I’ve heard so many times that having a program fail on you repeatedly builds resilience, but we don’t need to have students endure failure after failure.”

The PRIMM method, as Sentance explained, is about supporting students to explore programming in an environment where failure is reduced. “Rather than students sitting there staring at the blank screen writing a program to calculate the amount of water in a swimming pool or other such example, in the PRIMM model the teacher actually writes the program. The students then predict what they think the program might do and then run it to test their prediction. They can then explore the program without having to write it from scratch themselves. This approach offers support and removes the emotional anxiety caused by continually-failing buggy programs. Then gradually as the students modify the program, change it and make it their own, they become more comfortable with how it works.”

“We can help by making all of our teaching materials gender neutral”

In her current role as Chief Learning Officer at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, Sentance has turned her attention to gender balance in computing, leading a £2.4 million funded project investigating which of five different interventions increases the number of girls that study computing at GCSE and A Level. In 2020, only 22% of computing candidates for GCSE and 15% for A level Computer Science were girls.

One of the ideas underpinning this project, is the sense of belonging. “You need to find your tribe in the thing that you're doing, you need to see yourself in materials, and you need to be able to identify with the subject as being for you,” Sentance said. “When I did Physics at school I was the only girl in the class and I just didn't identify with it, despite having a lot of support from home. My daughter has had exactly the same experience even now.” Although a deep societal shift is needed, de-gendering the classroom could be a step towards making STEM more diverse and inclusive for all, Sentance explained. “We can help by making all of our teaching materials gender neutral, in images and language - bring they/them into everything in the classroom.”

For now, one tool to engage girls in computing, which Sentance has found particularly powerful, is the idea of the ‘near peer mentor’. “When I was teaching in my 30s and 40s, I used to wonder why having female Computing teachers didn't necessarily inspire all the girls. But when I ran an initiative where A level female students worked with girls in year 11, that seemed to make much more of a difference. You are the role model for the generation behind you.”

The Suffrage Science Maths and Computing Awards 2020 were held on Friday 6th November, 2020. You can find out more, and watch a recording of the event, here.

Hear more about previous Suffrage Science Awardees on the Suffrage Science Podcast. You can subscribe on: Podbean; Spotify; Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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