per for a “robot” (another participant)
to follow to stack a set of cups into a
particular configuration. Another organization, Kodable, has activities
that teach kids how to program by having them program each other using a
graphical set of instructions (for example, squat, jump, rotate, grab) to navigate obstacles and reach a goal. CS Unplugged is included, along with these
unplugged activities, as part of the
Hour of Codef for schools that either
do not have computers or that want to
include other computing activities beyond computer programming.
Since it was first introduced in
1998, the growth in the use of CS Unplugged by organizations and teachers provides evidence that this method of introducing computing to kids
is a valuable resource regardless of
whether or not they have access to
computers. As computing professionals, we should encourage the addition
of unplugged activities in our schools
to help children see the ingenuity, creativity and teamwork involved when
working on computational problems.
We should help to create, study, and
evaluate new unplugged activities for
teachers to use to reach a more diverse population of children. Through
these efforts, we just might connect
with young people who never thought
computing could be a potential career
path, and change their minds.
1. Bell, T., Alexander, J., Freeman, I., and Grimley, M.
Computer Science Unplugged: school students doing
real computing without computers. Journal of Applied
Computing and Information Technology 13, 1 (2009).
2. Bell, T., Witten, I.B., and Fellows, M. Computer science
unplugged: Off-line activities and games for all ages.
Computer Science Unplugged, 1998; http://www.
3. Kolb, D. Experiential learning: Experience as the
source of learning and development. Prentice Hall,
Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1984.
4. Taub, R., Armoni, M., and Ben-Ari, M. CS Unplugged
and middle-school students’ views, attitudes
and intentions regarding computer science.
Trans. Comput. Educ. 12, 2 (Apr. 2012).
5. Wing, J. Computational thinking. Commun. ACM 49, 3
(Mar. 2006), 33–35.
Thomas J. Cortina ( email@example.com) is Assistant
Dean for Undergraduate Education in the School of
Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. He is an
advisor for Computer Science Unplugged and for the AP
Computer Science Principles curriculum. He is a member
of SIGCSE, co-chairing SIGCSE 2011, and he is a senior
member of ACM. He has demonstrated the use of CS
Unplugged at numerous workshops for K– 12 teachers.
Copyright held by author.
“islands,” with children traveling from
one island to another on “pirate ships.”
As a child arrives at an island, the island’s overseer (a teacher or another
child) gives them two options to travel
from that island to another island: A or
B. Depending on which letter the child
picks, they are sent to one or another
island to then answer the same question. Their goal is to find their way to
Treasure Island, and as they move
from “island” to “island,” filling in a
map with their choices, they are forming a finite state automata. Students
will share information to find the fast-est path to Treasure Island, the longest
path (which involves cycles), all of the
paths, and so on, describing them as
a regular expression. Later, the teacher can show how they can look at this
problem abstractly as a set of states
with directed edges labeled “A” and
“B,” and how automata can be used to
describe other complex systems like
traffic lights and vending machines.
CS Unplugged activities are gender
neutral and encourage participation
by all groups. Illustrations in the ac-
tivities show pictures of boys and girls
performing the activities. The Nation-
al Center for Women in Information
Technology (NCWIT), has included CS
Unplugged in its materials for teach-
ers to encourage girls to learn about
information technology and pursue
a career in IT.a Exploring Computer
Science, a curriculum for secondary-
level students that has been used
successfully in school districts with
significant minority populations like
those in Los Angeles and Chicago,
has included CS Unplugged in its unit
on problem solving.b Carnegie Mel-
lon University uses CS Unplugged in
its TechNights workshops to encour-
age middle school girls to learn about
computer science,c and Howard Uni-
versity has used CS Unplugged to in-
crease awareness and appreciation of
computational thinking for African
CS Unplugged has also been used
in events sponsored by AccessCom-
putinge at the University of Wash-
ington for young people with dis-
abilities. For example, blind children
with their canes sitting in a row of
chairs represents an unsorted array.
The children learn various compar-ison-based sorting algorithms by
comparing the lengths of their canes
and moving to the appropriate chairs
depending on whose cane is longer.
When sorting by birthdays they shout
out their birthdays according to an algorithm. This allows a group of children to stand up together to move in
unison to the next chair, thus demonstrating a parallel sorting algorithm.
The concept of a parallel algorithm
and broadcast become quite real to
the children in the process of executing the algorithm in their chairs.
With a little creativity, the activities in CS Unplugged can be adapted
for any population. In fact, the CS Unplugged website lists numerous extensions for each of the original activities,
submitted by volunteers all around
the world. The activities have had such
an impact that the CS Unplugged curriculum, originally published in English, has been translated to a number
of languages such as Spanish, German, French, Italian, Portuguese (
Brazilian), Polish, Russian, Slovenian,
CS Unplugged is not the only unplugged way to introduce computing
ideas to kids. Tinkersmith, an organization based in Oregon, has developed a number of activities for K– 12
students that do not require computers including Binary Baubles and My
Robot Friend. Binary Baubles involves
using hands-on techniques to have
kids encode text using ASCII, and other methods. My Robot Friend requires
participants to write programs on pa-
With a little creativity,
the activities in
can be adapted
for any population.