Recently, I got to spend half a day with twenty local 10- and 11-year-olds from St. Augustine of Canterbury RC Primary School in Downend, Bristol, helping them understand how computers work. Our theme was ‘big computers,’ and our goal for the day was to build the “biggest computer in the world.” So, naturally, we started small! – with a quick tutorial on binary arithmetic.
The children quickly picked up the idea behind the base-2 binary system and were soon happily adding massive 5-bit numbers. Eventually they moved on to really massive numbers, including a try at factoring a 1,024-bit (309 decimal) digit – a challenge that for many years was considered so hard that a $100,000 prize awaited the first team to achieve it.
Having tackled ‘big problems,’ the children moved on to ‘big computers’, with a tour of the HP Labs Bristoldatacentre. Actually being inside a computer was a thrilling experience: the noise, the heat, all those flashing lights . . . The tour prompted some great questions from the children, and by this point over half of the group had decided they wanted to work for HP!
Leaving the datacentre, we dropped in on a couple of video conferencing rooms, set up calls to each other and played ‘Where in the World’ so the children could experience our global interconnectedness first-hand.
Our final activity was to build a ‘computer.’ Each child acted as a ‘0’ or a ‘1,’ having first designed and made his or her own “binary digit display card.” Then, standing in rows that represented inputs, carry, and result, they physically added together randomly-generated 5-bit numbers. The whole process was videoed from the top-floor balcony and was very impressive to watch – slower than a lot of computers these days, but certainly accurate!
Thanks to everyone involved – but especially to the 20 children who visited us to create the “biggest computer in the world!”