Are 10-year-olds too young to learn about Information Theory?
We don't think so. The Centre for Textual Studies (CTS) has been introducing some of Leicester's Year 5 school-children to the mysteries of how computers store and process language. In May 2017, the CTS's Prof Gabriel Egan and Dr Paul Brown welcomed children from Christ the King School to their Minimal Computing Lab, which uses early, primitive machines to help explain the essentials of how computers work.
"Most introductions to computing focus on mathematics," Prof Egan explained, "but we think about the same topics in terms of language not numbers". The binary system that all computers use can be thought of as a series of Yes/No answers to questions, and this approach helps very young children think about how they might convey a message using something that has only two states: on/off, one/zero, up/down, heads/tails, and so on.
In their first session the children held flags either up or down to store a binary digit, and in the second they found that they could silently convey a message across the lab using a stream of such 'characters'. Then they moved on to punching holes in paper so that a binary 'one' is represented by a hole and a binary 'zero' by the absence of a hole.
"To our delight," says Prof Egan, "the children took to this kind of encoding very quickly". We gave them strips of paper-tape--an obsolete computer storage medium from the 1960s--and some simple hole-punches, and a list of what are called the ASCII codes for the alphabet. The children became adept at punching just the right holes to encode their names and to check if they'd got it right they ran their tapes through our vintage Teletype machine.
Over the summer, the Centre for Textual Studies will expanding its programme of activities for local schools arranged through the DMU Square Mile and DMUlocal initiatives. "Children need to understand more than just how to use computers: they need to know how they work," says Prof Egan. "These children have convinced us that this learning can start very young".
Schools wanting to take part in this programme should contact De Montfort's Square Mile office using the link on the left.