The case of the stolen trophy, part one

Having previously been trained up as special agents, it was only a matter of time before the Year 3 and 4 pupils at Bredon Hancock’s school received their first mission.

Yesterday morning, whist reading through their weekly newsletter – the Bredon Bugle – the agents noticed a strange article which they recognised as being in some sort of code.

Coded message in the Bredon Bugle

Coded message in the Bredon Bugle

They phoned me and by the time I had rushed out of my office in iGenCa HQ and driven over to join them, they had donned their special agent ID badges, got out their investigation packs, started work with their code wheels and begun to decode the message. After a little bit of work, this is what we found it said:

To the bird of the night,
and another brightest blue.
I have taken something
That belongs to you.

Have you got what it takes,
To unravel the mystery?
You’ll need teamwork and brains,
Or your item is history.

Your entry point,
is where it begins.
Your imagination and mine:
Let’s see who wins…

It didn’t take us long to figure out that “bird of the night, and another brightest blue” was a reference to the agents in their normal pupil roles as Owls and Kingfishers, but what did the rest of the message mean?

I called a team to help me work through the rest of the verses and someone suggested that ‘entry point’ could mean the main entrance to the school. Another agent had spotted some new state-of-the-art security cameras had been installed in that area, so we went out to have a look.

state-of-the-art security camera

We located two of these cameras and decided we would have a look at the files on them to see if they had caught anything useful on tape.

They had!

The first one we watched showed us a person (that we recognised from previously intercepted footage) breaking into the school and then leaving again having wrapped something up and put it in her rucksack. She had some sort of device that zapped the camera though, so we couldn’t see everything.

When we looked at the footage from the other camera (that the intruder hadn’t spotted or zapped) it helped answer some of our questions: she had taken the sports trophy!

Here’s the combined footage from both cameras that shows what happened:

CCTV footage of the intruder from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Now the coded message from the Bugle made a lot more sense! We also knew we had to get permission to launch a full-blown mission, so our next task was to summarise what had happened in a report to Agent A to explain why it was important for us to investigate this.

Mission initiation report. What do we need to put in it?

Mission initiation report. What do we need to put in it?

One of the special agents sets out what had happened that morning

One of the special agents sets out what had happened that morning

We sent the reports off, but then realised we had to act fast if we were to be able to interview someone who was likely to provide some key evidence in our investigation: Mrs Greenwood the cleaner went home after lunch so we had to speak to her fast!



Here’s what was written on the paper:

  • Research challengers
  • Are they are good enough?
  • Think of a way to test them
  • Be sneaky
  • See what they do and who they tell?
  • Are they a good team?
  • Wait for contact
  • ???

What were we to make of that?

While we were thinking, a message came back from Agent A giving us permission to go ahead with the mission. We used the school’s recording devices to interview the head mistress (who had information about the security cameras) and the secretary (who had information about what state her office was in when she arrived at work that morning).

From what the cleaner and the secretary had told us, we decided to see if we could lift any fingerprints from the scene of the crime. First we practised getting prints from our own fingers and then a few of us went to look in the foyer to see if we could get any off the remaining trophies, the door or the reception hatch.

Examining the fingerprints on the large trophy

Examining the fingerprints on the large trophy

Unfortunately we were unable to lift any of these prints, but we had a really close look and decided that the ones on the door and the hatch were probably the same.

From the to-do list that the intruder dropped, we knew she was watching us to see who we would tell about what had happened.

I was unable to join the special agents today, but I believe they were compiling a special edition of the Bredon Bugle to tell EVERYONE.

Special agent training camp: debrief interviews

Another post relating to Phase 1 of delivery of an Agent N project designed to inspire creative writing and foster curiosity amongst a group of Y3 and Y4 pupils.

Whilst the pupils were winding up the training camp with a piece of reflexive writing, I took the opportunity to take a couple of them outside for a bit of feedback on the goings-on of the previous two days.

Rather than shoving a microphone in their face, I used some binaural microphones that look like earphones and just wore them around my neck. I’m repeating most things they say because I wasn’t sure if the mic was picking them up or not!

Here are the results:



Special agent training camp: video reports

Last week I spent the first 2 of what will be approximately 6 days working with the Year 3 and 4 classes at Bredon Hancock’s Endowed First School in rural Worcestershire.

My brief was initially to “inspire their children and staff to write with imagination, creativity, enthusiasm and confidence”, but this has since (I think in part as a result of conversations at my interview, which I did in role as Agent N) been expanded out to also try and foster a spirit of creativity, experimentation and enquiring minds in a more general sense. Staff and pupils.

I’ve worked on several Agent N projects up until now: immersive experiences taking place over 3-5 days in which the pupils have an overarching challenge to work on and, as a part of this, investigate different areas of the curriculum. Whilst I’ve had enormously positive feedback on the effects of these, I think there’s still plenty of scope for improvement, so with this project I have changed the structure to explore ways in which to hand some of the authorship back to the children. This has resulted in the delivery being split up into sections. Last week was the first of those sections: a 2-day special agent training camp.

Relinquishing some of the design decisions started well in advance of the delivery time in school when I recruited a friend – 8-year-old Agent M – to help me prepare a video for the trainees to respond to.

The message from Agent A requesting that we look at the top secret footage

The message from Agent A requesting that we look at the top secret footage

I wanted a video of an operative in action. The action involved had to be exciting and intriguing, but not so prescribed that the the pupils in school couldn’t come up with a large range of different interpretations. I had a few locations in mind, but the filming was done as part of a weekend away with friends, so even those decisions had to be flexible.

Here’s the result after some basic prompts for Agent M to run with plus a bit of video editing:

operative from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

I’ve never seen 40 children sat with such rapt attention before!

We played the video a few more times, pausing in places to give the trainee agents a chance to write down any important details or questions in their special agent notepads.

After a bit of discussion to get a general idea of what they thought was going on, the children were asked to write up their reports for Agent A.

A trainee agent prepares their report...

A trainee agent prepares their report...

Here are a few excerpts (spellings etc corrected):

In the film there was a girl disguised as a young child. At the start the girl was at an airport. At a machine she got some tickets. The code was AQZP. After she caught a plane and got dropped off at a wood. Why did she feel the tree?

The lady typed in AQZP. She walked up to a plane netting and stopped. The man walked to the plane. The lady ran to a tree and found a bag with a book in it. It might have been a clue. She ran to a farm track and stopped and ran a bit more and stopped again then suddenly pointed at a farm house. She ran down to a beach and crouched down to touch the sand. She was concentrating on the texture of the sand. Then she ran to a castle on a hill. I think she might be an agent on a mission.

She was wearing black and she looked like she was on a top secret mission. She typed into the computer AQZP which looked like a code. She thought carefully about what she was doing as if the time was running out. She recorded stuff in her notepad. She thought carefully about stuff she found and used it to help her. She looked around carefully in case anyone watched. She looks as if the time was running out and she had to go with the flow. She was just guessing and running. She wrote something into the sand. She felt the tree as if the tree had put it there.

Agent Harry's report on the video

Agent Harry's report on the video

On the DVD I think that there was a girl in an airport and she went there. A cash machine or ticket machine and then she looked at the plane and went to a woodland when a plane went overhead. I don’t think she wanted to be seen because she was sneaking. She picked up a bag and ran to the beach and made a sign in the sand. It was something like this [picture of an arrow]. She was disguised as an old gran. She had glasses like this [picture of glasses].

Agent Jemma's report

Agent Jemma's report

I think that the code at the beginning was that she was ordering some clues to find where she needs to go next. Next thing she was taking facts about the airport. Trying to get the right plane. Missed the plane. I think that she was undercover because she has glasses and a hoody.

I saw some dead drops that the agent was finding. It was an agent on a mission I think or she was finding information. An agent was on a computer on Flybe. In the corner of the screen I saw a word that was WHSmiths. The agent at the end was a bad agent finding clues about the good agent. I can’t work out why the agent at the end was feeling a tree and feeling the sand. The agent was writing the code AQZP to get permission.

The report from Agent Cara

The report from Agent Cara

Ideas from these reports and from other pieces of writing generated over the training camp will be used in the next phase of delivery…

We need questions. We need answers.

I’m working on a massive Creative Partnerships project in a Leicestershire primary school with several other practitioners from various disciplines including, music, dance, architecture, story-telling, illustration and greenwood structures. Our brief: to make sure the staff can do what we do after we’ve gone.

We’re starting off on two threads of enquiry. One is to look at how we can encourage more imaginative play amongst the foundation level classes (3-5 years old) and the other is nominally working with years 3 and 4 (7-9 years). I say nominally, because actually I think we’ve discovered it’s more about exploring how the teachers can move away from teaching for a specific outcome and move more towards child-led learning where the outcome comes out of the process.

Last week this message was delivered in assembly:

The message delivered to the pupils last week

The message delivered to the pupils last week

On Friday the pupils worked with some of the practitioners on brainstorming their initial ideas and questions.

Tomorrow I will go in and liaise.

Today I am trying to plan the day without actually planning the day.

It’s counter-intuitive and a bit scary, but we need questions and then we need answers. In that order.

Cast list for Milton

Milton – the pathogen-introducing game I’m making for a Coventry school – gets its first playing on Friday, so I’m in full-on production mode making the cards that determine the players’ roles.

Here’s a quick peek at the bacteria who will be trying to infect as many pathologists as possible:

List of bacteria from the game Milton

List of bacteria from the game Milton

Can the pathologists fight back?

Making Milton

I’ve been working with a school in Coventry to help them develop activities for their Year 8 Flexible Learning Day focusing on science and creative writing.

As a result of this I’ve been commissioned to design a game to teach and reinforce concepts and vocabulary relating to pathogens: how they spread and how we can protect ourselves against the nasty ones.

Game flow and card design

Game flow and card design

I’ve had the school’s permission to release the game’s rules under a creative commons license, and the basic description and mechanics are now up on the Ludocity website:

I’m currently working on designing the cards that will be used in the game and making sure they also double up as instructional prompts for the players – expect that ruleset to develop! In the meantime, I’m also soliciting feedback in advance of the game’s first plays on April 30th.

School Council requests

A slightly paraphrased list of requests spotted on a staffroom whiteboard:

School Council requests:

  • More themed days (followed by examples of things they loved)
  • Bench ball team
  • Swap cross-country for an indoor session when it is cold and wet
  • Chickens

All the requests made me smile in different ways as I read them.

Looking back it strikes me as an incredibly well-rounded list of ingredients.

Maths, but not as we know it…

I was shocked when this lady ran into the room & said COME INTO THE HALL NOW- THIS IS TOP SECRET. We suddenly found out that our teachers were all agents named Agent squirrel, Agent pants, Agent ants & Agent elliephants. I enjoyed learning this misson it was interesting to see all our teachers undercover. I learnt how to break codes in the afternoon & we got two clues that tell us what is the answer to this mission & it carries on going and going until we find the last clue. I am excited but i am little bit nervous because we only have 3 days.

Agent CB

In the morning when Miss Yates had just taken the register agent N came in and she said EMERGENCY!!! COME TO THE HALL QUICK I was really excited but when we were walking in the corridors we had to make sure that we were undercover so we had to act normal and when we had got to the hall agent N told us that we were on a mission to find some clues to solve the mission.Then we had to go back to are classrooms and we had to solve some clues and we got some clues just in the time of 15 minutes and the first clue was , near a mans whos’s insides you could clearly see and we had to find a map and each class had part of the map and if we put it together it would make the whole map. Today I have learned that if we all work together as a team the mission would be done quicker because we only have 2 days left.

Agent AW

I have realy enjoyed day 1 of (Sssshhhhhh) code breaking I can not I repeat (can not) wait until tomorrow.
And I cant wait to see the map again because it realy I repeat (realy) looks like fun also I thought what we might have to do with the map cause it looks allot like a treasure map.So we might have to find another clue or something.

cant wait for tomorrow
see you, yours greatfully
L (byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee)

Agent LJ

(All these examples were added to a forum on the school’s Virtual Learning Environment after school had finished.)

map with a secret sum in it

As a follow-on from the box with a secret knock in it, I’m preparing a 3-day immersive experience to develop active learning amongst 3 classes of 9/10 year-olds (Y5). This project is attached to the curriculum area of mathematics, but aims to address fundamental questions about attitudes to learning in general.

Constructing a map of the school grounds.

Constructing a map of the school grounds.

The plan is to solve a series of puzzles to incrementally build up a massive dot-to-dot overlaid on the school grounds, so I’ve just spent a couple of hours working from satellite imagery to construct an outline map over which we can place…

…well, that would be telling…

Box with a secret knock in it

In the second of my two interviews this week, I was invited by Whitmore Park Primary School in Coventry to help them look at ways to develop their children’s skills as active learners in mathematics.

With only a day and a half’s notice for the interview – which required me to design and deliver a ten minute activity with a group of pupils – the only sensible thing to do was not only to figure out the content of the activity, but also to embark on constructing a technological doohickie, the workings of which I had no prior experience in! Well, it’s all good learning, isn’t it?!

The things I wanted to achieve through the activity were:

  • To have the activity pupil-led as much as the restrictions in time would allow.
  • To use an approach that referenced my previous immersive experience projects and/or Mantle of the Expert, in order to provide a starting point for conversations regarding strategies of role play and active learning.
  • To use a medium that highlighted a ‘special’ technical skill that I could contribute to the mix – ie something not likely to already be available or in use within the school.
  • Something that felt to me like it was a genuine activity, and not too much like ‘maths dressed up’.
  • Something with a bit of ‘wow’ to it.

Riffing of something I had referenced in my application, I decided to do something based on code-breaking, but I wanted this to involve a physical object – one that would respond when the code had been broken. This, I felt, would give me a chance to make something using my hack/electronics skills which, whilst not being up to much in the grand scheme of things, should be adequate enough to impress a 9 year old…

After much searching of Instructables and Hackaday looking for the right combination of inspiration and cold, hard instruction, I decided to work with a system for recognising sequences of knocks in order to open a box. For this I am deeply indebted to Steve Hoefer’s detailed documentation of his Arduino-based Secret Knock Detecting Door Lock, which I only modified slightly to take into account the resources I had available.

Secret knock box gubbins: components labelled up to facilitate explaining what they were for, free ends of wires labelled up so that they could quickly be replaced in the right row of the breadboard if they accidentally came out...

Secret knock box gubbins: components labelled up to facilitate explaining what they were for, free ends of wires labelled up so that they could quickly be replaced in the right row of the breadboard if they accidentally came out...

Since it was only a ten minute activity, I decided to leave the components on the breadboard, rather than permanently soldering them up. It was also for this reason that I was reluctant to drill holes in the box I had acquisitioned to use as the casing. The downside of this being that there wasn’t really much in the way of a feedback mechanism, because the LEDs were not visible. As a compromise, I fitted a buzzer in the place of the door-knob opening motor so that the box would buzz when the correct knock was given. I also implied a lock through the way that I introduced the box and handled it in front of the children.

Here it is in action:

box with a secret knock in it. from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

When it was time for the kids to go into action, I reverted to the now familiar Agent N role and gave them an introduction that indicated that they were a specially selected team of code-breakers and we’d been given a mission to investigate this box.

I had some vague knowledge about such things, but I certainly didn’t hold any answers. After telling them they needed to find the secret knock, I handed them two folders containing stuff that might be clues and asked to “please tell me what you think”… I encouraged the children to help eachother out, and also to offer lots of different ideas and hypotheses.

A selection of clues from which the children successfully built up and interpreted a diagram of the secret knocks rythmn.

A selection of clues from which the children successfully built up and interpreted a diagram of the secret knock's rythmn.

From there I nudged and guided, seeking to let the pupils make the connections between the different clues wherever possible. We just managed to open the box in time!

The session was a bit slower and lower energy than I had imagined it would be. On reflection I think this was as much to do with nerves and shyness on the part of the pupils (I was the first artist they were interviewing) as much as anything in my control. Certainly the three children who had previously accompanied me on a tour of the school seemed more relaxed and outgoing than the others who had only just met me. The nice moment was when the Deputy Head came back to the room and asked what they had done. The description they gave, with no input from me, was spot-on and showed a sophisticated understanding of the principles involved.

Given the opportunity, I would love to expand this into a much longer activity in which we could solve the initial code, investigate how the box works and then – because obviously the code was too easy – reprogramme it with another knock and get the children to invent ways of codifying that information in an even more fiendishly difficult manner…

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