SICSA Programming Challenges

by Dr Hans-Wolfgang Loidl, Heriot-Watt University

29 June 2020

Different communities deal quite differently with the current Covid-19 situation and with lock-down.
Some get stressed over a flurry of online meetings, juggling several different technologies. For
your average hacker, who is quite used to spending hours, days and, well, weeks in front of the screen, the main challenge is to find some interesting activity to keep busy and focused.

That’s where the SICSA Programming Challenge “brave Bartik” comes into the picture. On Wed 17th of June, a SICSA wide team, led by the Computer Science department at Heriot-Watt University ran an online programming competition, tailored for undergraduate and (taught) post-graduate students, featuring a series of programming tasks to be completed in a one afternoon session. The team led by Dr Hans-Wolfgang Loidl (Heriot-Watt University) picked the OpenKattis platform which provides a huge repository of online problems, and performs automatic scoring of challenges submitted by students. As many of these platforms, it markets itself as a tool for preparing for technical interviews and honing programming skills, thus it is highly relevant for computer science students, who will be entering the job market soon.

The event attracted more than 100 students and about 80 of these students submitted at least one
correct solution to the challenge tasks posed. Five students in total managed to solve all six
problems in the time available. The highest scoring student was a PhD student from the University of
Edinburgh.  Places two and three were captured by one under-graduate student from the University of Edinburgh and one under-graduate student from the University of Glasgow. Students from at least six Scottish universities participated in this challenge.

Overall, the event was a great success, judging from the feedback the students have been giving in post-event surveys: 91% of the students answered Yes to the survey question “Would you be interested in participating in a similar challenge again?” Some quotes given by the students in the free-format feedback questions are:
“It was great to have a opportunity to practice programming competitively during the summer.”
“it was good fun! early challenges good for novices, later challenges good for those with more experience.”

After running one challenge at Heriot-Watt University and this SICSA-wide challenge, we now have an organising team from several Scottish universities in place: Dr Hans-Wolfgang Loidl, Dr Rob Stewart (Heriot-Watt University), Dr Vesselin Velichkov (University of Edinburgh) and Dr Chris Brown
(University of St Andrews). We encourage other academics to get in touch in order to grow the effort and expand the base of potential participants. We plan to build on the success of this challenge and run more SICSA-wide instances of this programming competition over summer.

Our thanks go to SICSA for funding the prize money for winners of the event and for promoting this event. More information on the programming challenge is available here.

SICSA Pre-CHI day 2020

by Mohamed Khamis, University of Glasgow

26 June 2020

The SICSA PreCHI day is an annual event where researchers from SICSA institutions present their latest contributions to the premiere conference on Human-Computer Interaction: the International ACM Conference on Human-Computer Interaction – or simply CHI (pronounced ‘kai’).

The PreCHI day serves two purposes: It is a chance to celebrate the success of SICSA institutions at CHI, and it helps create a strong HCI community in Scotland. Attending the SICSA PreCHI day allows HCI researchers to network and establish collaborations; learn what other HCI researchers in Scotland are working on, give their CHI work more exposure, receive feedback on their work and their CHI presentation, and of course also have fun :)

The SICSA PreCHI day 2020 was organised by Florian Mathis, Patrizia Di Campli San Vito and Mohamed Khamis and  it was planned to be in Glasgow. Due to COVID, we held it online and offered participants the chance to present their papers, enjoy live discussions, and even network in a virtual space that Florian Mathis created on Mozilla hubs for the event! Below is a selfie taken by five attendees of the SICSA PreCHI day.


Figure 1. We used Mozilla hubs to create a virtual space for the SICSA PreCHI attendees to network and socialise.


The SICSA PreCHI day consisted of two major components: 1) Presentations followed by discussions (both on Zoom), and 2) Networking, videos, and poster presentations in virtual breakout rooms (took place on Mozilla Hubs).

Achievements of the SICSA HCI community

This year, we received 11 CHI 2020 papers from SICSA institutions to be presented in the PreCHI day. We also had two poster presentations and multiple videos playing in the virtual space. Two of the papers received the best paper award (top 1% of ~3000 submissions) and one received the honourable mention award (top 5% of ~3000 submissions). This means that 18% of the papers presented at SICSA PreCHI day are among the top 1% of the submissions CHI 2020 received from all over the world, and >25% are among the top 5%.

Eleven CHI papers from SICSA institutions on various HCI topics

The eleven papers were presented in three sessions. Below are the session titles, the paper titles, and the SICSA institutions that are affiliated to the papers.

1. Extended Reality, Visualisation, and Product Design (4 papers)

a. Acoustic Transparency and the Changing Soundscape of Auditory Mixed Reality (DOI)
• University of Glasgow
• University of Strathclyde
b. Cheat Sheets for Data Visualization Techniques (DOI)
• University of Edinburgh
• University of Glasgow
c. Virtual Field Studies: Conducting Studies on Public Displays in Virtual Reality (DOI)
• University of Glasgow
d. Exploring The Future of Data-Driven Product Design (DOI)
• University of Edinburgh

2. Privacy and Security (3 papers)
a. Understanding Privacy-Related Questions on Stack Overflow (DOI)
• University of Edinburgh
b. The Role of Eye Gaze in Security and Privacy Applications: Survey and Future HCI Research  Directions (Honourable mention award) (DOI)
• University of Glasgow
c. What is this URL’s Destination? Empirical Evaluation of Users’ URL Reading (DOI)
• University of Edinburgh

3. Smart homes and Accessibility (4 papers)
a. Household Surface Interactions: Understanding User Input Preferences and Perceived Home Experiences (DOI)
• University of Dundee
b. Emoji Accessibility for Visually Impaired People (DOI)
• University of Dundee
c. Designing Clinical AAC Tablet Applications with Adults who have Mild Intellectual Disabilities (Best paper award) (DOI)
• University of Strathclyde
• University of Edinburgh
d. A design engineering approach for quantitatively exploring context-aware sentence retrieval for nonspeaking individuals with motor disabilities (Best paper award) (DOI)
• University of Dundee

Discussions and Recording of the Event

The attendees enjoyed interesting discussions after each presentation. The full day was recorded and can be viewed here.


Addressing Gender Imbalance in Computing Science Education

By Dr Matthew Barr, Centre for Computing Science Education, University of Glasgow

11 June 2020

On 14 May, the University of Glasgow, with support from the Scottish Informatics and Computer Science Alliance (SICSA), hosted an online workshop that looked at how the gender imbalance in Computing Science education might be addressed.

Bringing together representatives from schools, universities, and industry, the workshop was split into three breakout sessions.

In the first breakout session, the gender balance at participants’ institutions was discussed, in addition to any initiatives that had been undertaken to improve it. Groups then shared summaries of their discussion with the wider group.

In the second session, each group was allocated a short paper describing a successful initiative to address gender imbalance. Each group discussed their paper and then reported back on what, if anything, could be learned from the initiatives described.

In the final session, each group was asked to work up one of the ideas or themes that had emerged during the previous discussions. These were:

  • How can we link existing networks to utilise their resources?
  • Addressing the challenges of bringing Computing Science into early years learning.
  • Computing Science: A PR Issue?
  • Can broader, more applied projects get girls motivated more?
  • Developing social links and challenging stereotypes.

These were detailed in a summary document, which will form the basis of plans for future work, to be published on the Centre for Computing Science Education’s website in due course.

With over fifty participants, the discussion was both varied and insightful. I’d like to thank all who contributed on the day and especially those who have indicated that they want to continue working on this issue together. Around 30 participants signed up to continue the conversation, and the plan is for us to come together as a working group, tasked with making some of these brilliant ideas a reality.


Students as the focus at Edinburgh Napier’s Centre for Computing Education Research


Edinburgh Napier recruits a high proportion of students from partner colleges as direct entrants and the work of the Associate Student Project supports this often-difficult transition.  Debbie Meharg, supported by Khristin Fabian, Ella Taylor-Smith and Alison Varey has developed a model of interventions to aid preparation and support direct entrants both pre and post-transition with an emphasis on the early induction even.  Jyoti Bhardwaj’s research focuses on the transition into first-year computing, engagement and the first-year experience. Her latest papers evaluate the use of simulations to promote soft skills in small-group collaborative settings.

Graduate Apprentices

In 2017 School of Computing started their Graduate Apprenticeship programmes.  Developed through partnership working with employers and SDS, research has been at the core of this development. Our research seeks to understand the unique needs of GAs and operationally we’ve adapted teaching styles and developed appropriate support mechanisms. Research focuses on understanding the perceptions, backgrounds and policy influences, working with others across Scotland coordinated by Ella Taylor-Smith.

Placement and Professional Identity

Transitions into and out of placement, and further down the line into the workplace is the focus of research linked to the Scotland-wide e-Placement Scotland project (Colin Smith, Sally Smith).  They are looking at the student decision-making process and perceived and actual barriers, and how the placement experience contributes to an emergent ‘professional identity’ which can ease the socialization and transition into a graduate role and secure development in the grad career.

Language and Pedagogy

Kendall Richard’s recent and ongoing work has been in the areas of theories of language/pedagogy, subject-context and approaches to student support. A recent journal article examined subject-specific language and pedagogy: Using physical objects as a portal to reveal academic subject identity and thought.  Kendall continues his work in the area of English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI) and research into the effectiveness of current practices used for testing of English in Higher Education.

Collaborative Projects

John Morrisons collaborative work with DMID Global 4th year student Murray Paterson displaying an installation at the Independent Care Review launch event in Glasgow


John Morrisons is working on a collaborative project with Our Hearings Our Voice exploring the potential of digital media to create spaces for dialogue, which protect confidentiality in participatory rights based methodologies. Installations have taken place at the Independent Care Review launch and work continues with the Children’s Hearing Network.  You can find out more about Johns other projects here.

Further details about this work and more can be found here.


A vibrant community in computing research education at Glasgow Caledonian University

At GCU there are a number of active areas of education research and scholarship in Computing:

Cloud Computing Curriculum

Brian Hainey and Sajid Nazir are participants in a series of ITiCSE Working Groups which address the challenges that instructors face in teaching rapidly evolving cloud-related concepts. Brian is a co-leader of the ITiCSE 2020 group.

Engagement in online tutorials

Bobby Law and Iain Lambie, are working to identify elements of best practice for the delivery of online synchronous tutorials. This work is founded on extensive experience with the OU as well as GCU, and has particular resonance at present.

Teaching and learning of programming

Jim Paterson has contributed to a number of ITiCSE Working Groups related to teaching and learning of introductory programming and programme comprehension in an education context. Related to this, he is working on the use of eye-tracking to study programming comprehension in novice programmers. Sajid Nazir is working on novel contexts for teaching data structures, in association with our partner institution, the African Leadership College in Mauritius.



Ground-breaking work within the field of computing education research

Within SICSA institutions we are doing excellent, ground-breaking work within the field of computing education research. We have asked the newly formed Education Champions to write short blogs about the research within their particular institution.

At the University of Glasgow, the Centre for Computing Science Education supports several education research projects.

Spatial skills

Jack Parkinson is researching the connection between spatial ability and success in Computing Science at a university level. It has been discovered that, along with many STEM subjects, success in computing courses at university correlate with one’s spatial skills: that is, their ability to mentally manipulate 2D and 3D objects, identify visual patterns and other spatial cognitive tasks.

Programming Language Transfer For Novice

Ethel Tshukudu is investigating conceptual transfer for relative novices when they transition from one programming language to another as they progress in their level of Computing Science Education.

Graphical Representations of Statistical Cognition

Lovisa Sundin is investigating ways of helping novices implement statistical procedures programmatically. Specifically, she is interested in a range of graphical techniques meant to address various cognitive aspects of this process: the conceptual, the computational and the syntactic.

Mental Models for Programming

Peter Donaldson is currently investigating conceptual models of programming languages and systems (notional machine models) and which types of activities help novices to develop a more coherent and accurate mental model of how they work.

Early Play and Programming

Elizabeth Cole is investigating the role of early play in the development of foundational programming skills.



Another successful exchange with the SICSA PECE Award

By Paola Ardón Ramírez

20 April 2020

I’m Paola and my research project is focused on robots collaborating on household tasks for which I use the concept of grasp affordances (knowing how to appropriately grasp objects given a task). From the beginning, the project has been planned to start on a theoretical basis and grow hierarchically to a framework that people can actually use. In this way, it also helps us evaluate how ‘intelligently’ the robot is helping on the household chores.

In June 2019 we agreed with assistant professor Maya Cakmak to collaborate on a joint project that involves creating a method to assist humans on grasping objects, specifically targeted to population that has mobility impairments. Our main objective would then be to facilitate the handover of the object depending on the receiver’s task.

We planned the academic visit to last for a total of four months. In December of 2019 I arrived to the Human Centred Robotics (HCR) at University of Washington, WA USA. The HCR lab’s main line of research is human-robot interaction and end-user programmable applications that facilitate the use of robotic platforms to non-experts.

University of Washington, specifically the robotic labs, are well known for their collaborations with Microsoft Research, NVIDIA, Amazon and Google, so it is needless to say that I was very excited to get my visit started and explore their facilities. The first month was more about adjustment, getting to know the place, the labs, where to get the much needed every day coffee and, of course, meeting new people.

The following months we followed a timeline to achieve the set goals for the academic visit. It was a busy but much enjoyable time as I learned from collaborating with other members of the HCR lab. I got many ideas for my research project and also got to collaborate on a parallel line of work involving grasping for limb re-positioning when going through therapy. Later on my visit I got the opportunity to stop by NVIDIA robotics lab and take a tour of their installations as well as a brief on their research. The experience was amazing and, interestingly, I learned how similar the line of research of the company is to the current project I’m working on.

The lessons I learned during my academic visit are immeasurable, not to mention how much I grew as a researcher. One of the biggest challenges for the completion of the visit was the unexpected and unprecedented times the world is living with the COVID-19 outbreak. Mainly because the final stage of our project is about humans trying the framework and giving us input on the robot performance. This last bit is in re-evaluation and adjustment to the ‘social distance’ rules we all are starting to get used to. At the end I’m convinced we will be able to evaluate the framework appropriately.

Visiting such a prestigious university and having such a great research adventure wouldn’t have been possible without funding from the SICSA PECE Bursuary.


SICSA PECE Award supports researchers in establishing new links and collaborations

by Èric Pairet, University of Edinburgh

15 April 2020

Howdy!, as my new Texan fellows would say. I’m`Eric Pairet, a part-time research associate at the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics that has just finished a four-month academic placement at Kavraki’s lab, Rice University, Houston, US. During the placement, I have been actively collaborating with Prof. Lydia Kavraki, a lead researcher in the area of computational robotics, artificial intelligence and biomedicine. As my research is in the field of robotics motion planning, establishing such collaboration was really inspiring.

I arrived at Rice University in mid-November 2019. Contrary to green rainy Scotland, Houston welcomed me with warm and slightly humid weather that almost made me feel like home; I’m from Catalonia and I do cherish the warmth of the sun! The first couple of weeks were about adjustment to the new town, new people, and the amazing food range going from slow-cooked meat chunks to delicious fried doughnuts. Also, during these weeks I got to know the installations of the university, the routine in Kavraki’s lab and its incredibly interesting research, some of it in collaboration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

As for where my research goes, I worked with Prof. Lydia Kavraki on reusing prior experiences in robotic motion planning applications. This is inspired by human behaviour; when we want to perform a particular task, we already have an intuition about the motion we should plan for it. We developed an algorithm, also known as planner, that exploits some a-priori information of the task that the robot must accomplish. Initial experimentation has been conducted on a Fetch robot, a mobile platform with a robotic arm, on a stock replenishment task. The results indicate that accounting for relevant information in the planning stage allows us to quickly and more reliably obtain well-looking natural plans.

All in all, my placement at Kavraki’s lab has been extremely stimulating and productive. I would personally recommend any researcher to visit an external research centre, as it is a very enriching experience. Also, it allows to establish new links and grow as a researcher. Conducting this academic placement would not have been possible without the funding from the SICSA PECE Bursary. More information about myself and my research is available on my website.

SICSA Funding Call Now Open

We are pleased to announce that the Scottish Funding Council has awarded us further funding to continue the Scottish Informatics & Computer Science Alliance (SICSA) research pool until July 2021

We now have a new series of funding calls open with increased support across our research themes with the aim to extend and expand our links with other research pools (SUPA/SULSA/SINAPSE etc.) and with the Scottish Innovation Centres

To support students in SICSA, we have a new program of SICSA Research Scholars to undertake studies and/or research via Summer/Winter Schools attendance and/or research visits.

For staff, SICSA can support, Academic and Research Distinguished Visiting Fellows from Academia or Industry, Research Theme Event Sponsorship, Postdoctoral and Early Career Researcher Exchanges (PECE), our European Leaders Programme and Education Event Sponsorship.  Full information on the funding opportunities can be found at

The next deadline is April 30th, and we welcome applications for Research Theme Events which connect between SICSA themes or connect SICSA to other research pools.

Submissions with commitments of matched funding from other research pools or innovation centres are strongly encouraged.  Some of these events might aim to explore grand challenges while other events might focus of emerging research.

The new SICSA Director of Education on his role and building the education community

Earlier this month, I took over as SICSA Director of Education from Dr Rachel Menzies, who has served in this capacity over the last two years. First off, I would like to thank Rachel for all her hard work, and I look forward to serving the community in this role.

I am currently a Senior Lecturer and Course Leader at the Robert Gordon University, with a passion for computing education – more specifically, student transition into higher education and the concerns that our students start their journeys with. I have had continuous engagement with SICSA through a number of events over the past few years and have been supported throughout my career by a number of SICSA Education workshop funds, in topics ranging from entrepreneurship to peer assessment. Through these events, the last Education All-Hands, and various other conferences, I have had the pleasure to meet and work with many of you – and during my tenure as Director of Education, I hope I can rely on your knowledge and enthusiasm to support the fantastic ongoing work in this area that is going on all over the country.

We do a lot of great work in this field; largely being shared at international conferences, and I think we can do more, internally, to support this body of work moving forward. I would like for us to increase the visibility of our fantastic Education work, and to be able to engage in discussion across the year, not just during set meeting points. To this end, I will shortly be circulating a call for each institution to nominate an Education Champion.

On this note – I would like everyone to encourage colleagues, especially new lecturers interested in the field to join – and share content – to the SICSA Education mailing list, which you can sign up to here:

Finally – if you have any ideas of things that can be done to build the education community, then get in touch. I am keen to engage not only with academics, but also PhD students, school teachers and industry – there are many stakeholders with a vested interest in Computing Education, and I am very excited to be working with all of you.