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Victoria College First Lego League 2014 – We won!


For the past 2 months I have been working with a group of excellent year 9s (also known as year 8 in England and Wales) from Victoria College, Belfast on the First Lego League competition.

I have competed in the competition as a student now 3 years running and as I am now too old, decided I would love to mentor a new team, preferably near Queens University, Belfast.

After chatting with W5 (Northern Ireland STEM centre and regional organisers) and  a rather surprising and unpredictable set of events, I ended in Victoria College, just 5 minutes down the road from Queens accommodation (Elms village).

The team

By the time all of this was organised and we got started, it was the 4th of October, putting the team 1 month behind all the other teams in Northern Ireland who received their kit at the start of September.

The students chosen to take part were 21 year 9 girls in a “Learn to learn” class. This will be ringing alarm bells with First Lego League veterans as the team sizes are limited to 10 students. As the class was this size, they were split into 2 groups to work with the final decision on those representing the school in the team of 10 being taken the day before the competition. The 11 additional students not on the team (got a day off school and) came down to W5 to support the 10 on the team.

Through their learn to learn classes, the girls were provided with 90 minutes a week to work on the competition, but any First Lego League team will tell you, that is nowhere near enough! So on top of this, the girls in separate groups (project, robotics, programming) came to after-school sessions and also a number of Saturday afternoon sessions to get the needed work finished.

It was great to see the girls build their teamwork, programming and presentation skills throughout the competition.

The competition day

So on 2nd of December we arrived at W5 in the Odyssey arena as by far the single largest group and were informed we were on first!

Robotic games

The robot going to throw the ball into the net
The robot going to throw the ball into the net
Making sure it is perfectly lined up
Making sure it is perfectly lined up

On the first match of the day, the girls scored 185 points. This stayed the highest score overall till after lunch when Dalriada School and Magherafelt High School both also got 185 points bringing it to a 3-way tie.

In the end, the winning team was decided by their second highest score.

The girls also had a number of other sessions (each weighted 25% in the overall award) including.

Robotic Design

Showing the Robotic Design judges the robot
Showing the Robotic Design judges the robot

Core Values

Core values judge asking the girls about their teamwork
Core values judge asking the girls about their teamwork


A lot of work (and conductive thread sewing) went into making their project, Rainbow the dog. Given the competition is still ongoing, we will not be releasing full details on Rainbow, but will say she contains a Raspberry Pi. The judges were extremely impressed with the overall idea and loved the prototype. They were also impressed with the breadth of research conducted by the girls including a number of surveys.

Taking questions from judges
Taking questions from judges
Two rather impressed judges
Two rather impressed judges
Rainbow the dog
Rainbow the dog

The Result

In the award ceremony the girls were awarded the

Robotic Games award

and were awarded…..

The Champions award!


This is the overall Northern Ireland FLL award meaning they now progress on to represent Northern Ireland in the UK and Ireland finals in Loughborough in February 2015.



A well deserved celebration by the team from Victoria College
A well deserved celebration by the team from Victoria College


A huge congratulations to the girls! Their hard work and commitment really has paid off.



A few thank you’s are due.

First, huge thank you to Kanios Software, the team sponsor for Victoria College. Without them, we would not have been able to get the robot and pay registration fees.

Next, huge thanks to W5 and especially Aideen Johnson who works tirelessly to organise sponsors for every team, NI registration and then organise the big event in December. Basically none of it would happen without Aideen. Thanks also to W5 for some of the above photographs.

Finally, to everyone else who we ended up chatting to along the way (especially the project) and threw ideas at us (or answered our surveys), thank you!


Thanks girls for the awesome card
Thanks girls for the awesome card

Should you learn to program before university?

This is response to Ryan Walmsley’s post recently where he concluded the answer to the above question to be no. Here is my response.


Ryan brings up a number of interesting points on how he believes MIT Scratch should only be used with kids up to the age of 11. I highly disagree with this statement. Scratch is  an amazing platform for a beginner of any age! I have taught kids as young as 5 to even a 70 year old with Scratch. I really don’t think age has anything to do with it as a beginner is a beginner.

Like many universities, the Open University is faced with the issue that 90%+ of its students have never coded before. Although I don’t believe the module should be a full year, I guess it depends on the number of hours expected every week (is a full time course vs part time etc).

The Open university is far from alone in teaching using Scratch. Many universities in the United States use Scratch to teach their first year students. has produced a great video explaining why.

In the first few months, it is in my opinion more important to teach students the constructs and problem solving associated with computer science than teaching syntax. Syntax is different for every language, Scratch lets you move onto any language after where as jumping straight into a text based language may lock certain syntax into students heads as being associated with for example an if statement.

Although I will admit Scratch 1.4 is not a tad limiting for use with university students after more than a few weeks, Scratch 2.0 adds objects and a number of other items, making it much more suitable. Even better though would be Snap or byob.

Should we discourage students from learning programming before the course?

This though is the bit I personally disagree with most. Ryan concludes no, we shouldn’t be teaching kids to code.

Computer Science already has the highest dropout rates in UK universities (9.8%). Is this because it is just too hard for 9.8% of students? I don’t think so, I believe the high dropout rates are due to the students being misinformed about what Computer Science actually is. At school you already get a chance to study modern languages, art, business studies, history etc. All these subjects have direct follow on subjects at university and have much lower dropout rates. The students picking them have a rough idea what to expect given they may have been studying them for 7 years already at secondary school. With a majority of students, Computer Science is not an offered subject, how are they meant to have a clue what to expect if they don’t get a chance to try it out beforehand in school?

Many students do Computer Science as they believe it will follow on from A-level ICT, something which they then discover is very far from the truth.

Chicken and egg

It is a chicken and egg scenario though. If enough students study Computer Science in school, universities can add it to the requirements, but given it is statistically seen as a harder A-level, students won’t take it unless they are really interested in the subject until they need it for universities.

Some universities have taken the first step, I have to applaud my own University, Queens University Belfast who provide lower entry requirements for students studying A-level Computing. It is currently in the minority though in doing this, but more are starting to follow suit.

Pick a course that is right for you

It is ultimately up to the student though to pick the correct university for them. It is their job to read the fine details of their course and decide if the course content is right for them. If it isn’t especially in England, perhaps consider looking into a different university given there are quite a few with most having similar fees.

To conclude

To conclude, do I think students should be given the opportunity to code from KS2 onwards? Yes, it gives them a better ground to make a decision on a university course.

Do I believe MIT Scratch is worth using in universities? Yes, although would recommend Snap over Scratch due to more functionality.

I won an award! (or 2..)

On Tuesday 28th October 2014 I travelled to London to the house of commons with my family for the TalkTalk Digital Heros 2014 award ceremony in the House of Commons.

For those unaware what the Digital Hero awards are, they are an award scheme organised by TalkTalk, Go on UK, Citizens Online and the Mirror that is designed to celebrate people who use digital technology to bring about social change.

I had made it through shortlisting and a public voting voting rounds in the Next Generation category (a special category for a “young person”) and had been informed back on the 29th September that I had won the category! Winning the category came with £4000 to spend towards my project (teaching kids in Northern Ireland to code) and a Macbook air.

So on Monday I travelled to House of Commons from Northern Ireland (where the weather was terrible!) to the award ceremony.

Before the ceremony started I (after a bit of a wild goose chase) met up with Alan O’Donohoe, the recipient of the Volunteer Digital Hero award for his awesome work with Raspberry Jams (and piles of other events!).

Before heading in we got some photographers with the houses of parliament in the background.

TalkTalk-award 2014-10-28 at 15-16-54


The ceremony itself was in the Strangers dining room in the House of Commons.

After a brief introduction speech from John Fisher (Chief executive of Citizens Online), the award ceremony got underway with each recipient of the category awards getting presented their awards.

I was awarded my Next Generation award by Claire Sutcliffe (Co-founder and CEO of Codeclub).

TalkTalk-award 2014-10-28 at 16-44-52


They then announced the overall TalkTalk UK Digital Hero 2014 award winner as “Andrew Mulholland”!

Given that there were so many other amazing and deserving projects, it was a complete unexpected shock to win the award!

This overall award comes with an additional £5000 to spend towards teaching kids to code!

TalkTalk-award 2014-10-28 at 16-51-05

TalkTalk-award 2014-10-28 at 17-35-54
All the winners and judges together


Gregory Campbell, MP for East Londonderry
Gregory Campbell, MP for East Londonderry
Speaking with Sajid Javid (UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport)
Speaking with Sajid Javid (UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport)

TalkTalk-award 2014-10-28 at 17-38-17

Huge thanks to everyone who voted for me in the public vote stage!


Accessing full Raspberry Pi SD card on a Mac

It can be annoying that on Windows and Mac by default they are unable to see the data partition on a Raspberry Pi SD card.

It is able to see the BOOT partition as it is formatted FAT32, a standard format used by a lot of different types of removable drives like flash drives and it can be read by just about every operating system.

The other partition, the one with the data on it is EXT3, the standard Linux filesystem format. Windows and Mac do not officially support it but as Mac OS is Unix based, it is a little easier to implement a driver for it that with Windows.


Just a word of warning, the fuse-ext2 driver is far from as polished as the NTFS (Windows) and HFS (Mac OS) drivers built by companies with entire teams to maintain them. Because of this there is a much higher chance you will corrupt or kill your SD card.

Although it has never happened to me, the chance it there.

You have been warned

Fuse for OS X

The first bit needed is Fuse (Filesystem in UserSpacE). Basically Fuse allows you to load additional filesystem drivers in as a userspace program. AKA it loads new filesystem drivers as user programs!

So go grab the most recent version (currently 2.7.0) from here and run the installer.

The important bit is when you get to the “Installation Type” section you must select all 3 options (including MacFUSE Compatibility Layer”).

Once the installation is complete, restart your computer.


Now we have the ability to add filesystem drivers, lets actually add the one we want. Although the name of the driver is Fuse-ext2, it also supports ext3 so we are fine.

You can download Fuse-ext2 from here then run the installer selecting all the default options.

That is it, ext3 filesystems connected to your Mac should now pop up as normal external devices in Finder.

But wait, I can’t edit them? They are read only!

Correct, by default Fuse-ext2 disables write access as it is still experimental and dramatically increases the chance of corrupting the SD card.

If you are happy with read only access and want to play it safe, reboot your computer to make sure everything is cleared out and you are done.

If though you want read/write access and you have read my big warning and are happy to take the risk, then open a terminal (search in spotlight for terminal or it is in utilities in your applications folder) and enter in

sudo nano -c /System/Library/Filesystems/fuse-ext2.fs/fuse-ext2.util

This will open up the fuse-ext2 configuration file in a commandline text editor called nano.

Scroll down (using the arrow keys to move around) till you find the mount function. Comment out the OPTIONS= and copy in the new line.


The final section should look like this.

function Mount ()
    LogDebug "[Mount] Entering function Mount..."
    # Setting both defer_auth and defer_permissions. The option was renamed
    # starting with MacFUSE 1.0.0, and there seems to be no backward
    # compatibility on the options.
    # OPTIONS="auto_xattr,defer_permissions"

    # The local option is only enabled on Leopard. It causes strange

To save the text file, hold the ctrl+x keys, then hit y followed by enter.

Now, just for good measure do one last reboot and that should be it.

Final Warning

One final suggestion, make sure you properly eject any filesystem using the ext2 driver! Pulling it out without ejecting is a sure fire way to get the SD card corrupt and only costs you a few seconds. Remember pulling out a pen drive without ejecting has a small chance of corrupting it and with this because you are using a driver that is a lot less stable, you are dramatically increasing the chance!

TalkTalk Digital Heros shortlisted

As some people have seen, I have been shortlisted for the TalkTalk Digital Hero’s Next Generation award!

To Vote    >> Click Here <<

If you just want to vote, then click this button!
If you just want to vote, then click this button!

What is TalkTalk Digital Hero’s?

TalkTalk Digital Hero’s is about recognising people who use technology for good. There are 9 categories in total and I have been shortlisted for the Next Generation category. The winner is decided by a public vote which is open till the 25th September.

The winner of each category receives the title of a digital hero and also £5000 to put towards continuing their project.


What is your project?

Showing kids how fun Computer Science is while supporting teachers across the UK to do the same!

The slightly longer description is…

1. Running Raspberry Pi and Computer Science workshops across Northern Ireland and continuing to run the Northern Ireland Raspberry Jam (which will hopefully now be monthly) to inspire kids and adults alike and show them how fun Computer Science can be!

2. Supporting continued development of RaspberryPi-LTSP, my software for setting up and managing Raspberry Pi classroom’s. It makes it possible for teachers to effectively use Raspberry Pis on a day to day basis in a classroom. So far I have done all this for free in my spare time. The software is completely free and opensource. Full details of RaspberryPi-LTSP can be found here

3. Supporting Computer Science teachers and educators across the UK. This has involved me providing teacher training, speaking at teachers conferences and developing educational resources for teachers.

I do all 3 of the above already in my spare time and for free – but this is becoming harder and harder as I start to need to earn money to help fund university. Winning this would allow me to continue my work and invest even more time into it!


What can I do?

The simplest thing you can do is vote for me! Vote on as many devices you can get your hands on! It takes 10 seconds, that is it.


Once you have done that, then please share this page with everyone you know via Twitter, Facebook etc!


Also, another Raspberry Pi community member, Alan O’Donohoe is up for the Volunteer award for his work with Raspberry Jams so vote for him too!

Vote for Alan