‘What if we try to bring R to the classroom? That was our wacky idea’

R-Girls is a new project aiming to introduce R into secondary school lessons – just not through computer science classes! Real World Data Science meets with one of the project’s founders, Mohammed Mohammed, to learn more.


Brian Tarran


September 25, 2023

R-Girls is an exciting new project launched by Green Oak Academy, a faith-based independent secondary school for girls based in Birmingham, England. The project aims to promote the use of R in schools through the development and delivery of R-based lesson plans for a range of subjects.

To find out more about R-Girls, its origins and ambitions, Real World Data Science met with Mohammed Mohammed, a governor at Green Oak Academy, principal consultant for the National Health Service (NHS) Midlands and Lancashire Strategy Unit, and a founder of the NHS-R Community.

What inspired R-Girls?

“It was the confluence of a few different things. Firstly, Dr Razia Ghani, head teacher at Green Oak Academy, has a PhD in mathematics from the University of Birmingham, has some experience of doing statistics in the pharmaceutical sector, and teaches mathematics. That meant we had a lot of shared capital in our background and thinking about things.

“When I became a governor of the school, the staff were doing progress reports for pupils, and I wrote a little programme in R to help them with this. So, that was one of the early uses of R in the school.

“I know R because of my experience in academia, and I had previously put in a proposal to the Health Foundation to introduce R to the National Health Service. The Health Foundation agreed to that, they funded it, and we now have an NHS-R Community which is basically promoting the use of R in the health service.

“And so I said to the head teacher, ‘What about if we try to bring R to the classroom?’ That was our wacky idea, and we put in a bid to the R Consortium, and they gave us seed funding, and that’s how we got started.”

What are the aims of the project?

“The aims of the project are threefold:

  • To promote the use of R in secondary schools for girls.
  • To inspire teachers to incorporate R into their lessons.
  • To enable students to experience the joy of R.

“On our website, we have prepared 10 or so oven-ready lesson plans – they have to be oven-ready for any teacher to ever think about using them; they have to be polished, ready, and easy to use. As well as our website, we have a Twitter page and a community on Slack.

“One key thing to note is that we didn’t set out to teach programming. The history of computer science in our school is that computer science was really not liked at all by the girls. They wouldn’t choose it as a subject to pursue further. So, we decided to use R to support other subjects. This was a key strategic decision, really.

“People have attempted to develop lesson plans to teach Python, but that would be a non-starter in my school because (a) there isn’t much curriculum space, and (b) no teacher is enthusiastic enough to take on that activity and learn Python and become the Python expert in class. Whereas using R as a tool to facilitate learning in other subjects just opens up the whole world of data science in a way that is so much more accessible and appealing. People may say we’re really not teaching students how to code – but we’re not putting them off coding either!”

Screenshot of R-Girls website, showing a few taster lessons for setting up and using R in class.

How is R being used in different subjects in school?

“In maths lessons we do things like generate sequences, plot graphs, do Pythagoras’ Theorem. In geography, we have mapping lessons and lessons on plotting rainfall data from Australian cities.

“Our lesson plans are set up in R Markdown, but the key thing from the teacher’s point of view is that they recognise the structure: What stage is it in terms of the curriculum? What are the objectives, the success criteria and keywords? Typically, we’ll show a worked example and then give the students an exercise to draw a different graph, say – they learn to tweak existing code rather than start from scratch.

“We first taught them how to use R using R Markdown – a way of writing script and code and data all together in one document. And after the first lesson, we were absolutely astonished. This is feedback from one of the girls: ‘Today’s lesson was very interesting and exciting. I’ve learnt a lot of new things about coding and found a new hobby…’ From subsequent lessons, here’s more feedback: ‘Programming and coding was actually quite fun… It was a great feeling knowing that I was able to code a whole bar chart all by myself…’

“A new thing that we’ve done recently is that one of the teachers has been inspired and has learned how to build a website in R, and she’s then decided to teach the Year 9 girls how to build their own websites. One quote from a student was: ‘I learnt how to make a website; I feel like an independent woman now.’ Another said: ‘This was very stressful. But it will look good on my CV.’

“One of the key challenges we face in education is that teachers are very stressed, and Covid didn’t help. Workloads are a massive issue in teaching, and of course that’s the same for our teachers. So, we had to make sure that whatever we do does not feel like it’s adding to the workload. One of the things we do is to use R in the cloud, so there is no installation and debugging on local computers. We try to minimise the pain, really.”

Screenshot of R-Girls website, showing two geography lessons: one on plotting rainfall data from Australian cities, and one on mapping.

Lesson plans developed so far include ones for maths, science, and geography classes (pictured).

How do you want to see the R-Girls project grow, and what will success look like for you?

“It would be really nice to see that girls introduced to R through the R-Girls project felt there was a natural progression for them to join the R-Ladies Group, so that data science becomes part of their future aspirations.

“The second thing is that I’d like to set up an annual conference for girls at school, which would be online and which becomes part of the extracurricular landscape, so that any girl interested in R can join.

“We’d also love to see other schools, especially girls schools, joining the project – and joining the project just means agreeing to take the lessons we have and trying them in class. We would welcome other schools contributing additional lessons to the library of lessons, so that it becomes an open community resource that anybody can use. There’s nothing in this which is designed to make it explicitly local to an English independent school in Birmingham!

“We are keen to hear from others, so please reach out to us on rgirlsschool@gmail.com.”

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© 2023 Royal Statistical Society

This interview is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) International licence.

How to cite
Tarran, Brian. 2023. “‘What if we try to bring R to the classroom? That was our wacky idea’” Real World Data Science, September 25, 2023. URL