It was Julian’s very own idea as a child to create a space where children could come together to learn, create and innovate. Locally within general education classrooms, it is rare for gifted learners to participate in acceleration activities or enrichment programmes. Not being able to work at their own level leads to boredom and frustration, which in turn can have various repercussions on the children’s socio-emotional well-being, as well as their motivation and engagement.

Bringing the very first term of Julian’s InventaLand to a close, the session, organised on July 1 for five- to 11-year-old gifted and twice-exceptional learners, focused on what is the essence of computation.

Although we use computers all the time, most of us would struggle to explain what computation really is. We know what a calculation is but we also know that a calculator is, not a computer. What makes a computer so special?

To help us get to the heart of the question of computation, Christian Colombo from the Department of Computer Science at the University of Malta used gravity-powered marble computers during the workshops, rather than the typical electronic ones that we’re so used to. These marble computers are programmable via special plastic bits which direct the marble along the board. The participants had the opportunity to solve a number of challenges ranging from generating particular marble patterns, to counting and adding marbles in binary form!

Unsure whether to consider it as work or play, the children were absorbed in the cycle of trying different configurations, dry-running the program by passing their finger through the board (as the marble would), and finally testing the outcome with the actual marbles.

Computation is the ability to take a bit of data and make a decision based on it

The nice thing about using a marble-powered computer is that it bypasses lots of preconceptions of what a computer is and who usually does well in programming or not. It gives learners the opportunity to delve directly into the task with very basic components and intuitive marbles to work with. This provided the space for a child-led exploration of the topic, empowering them to experience their potential and ability to learn at their own level.

Going back to the question of what is computation, perhaps the best answer is to go further back to Alan Turing’s 1936 machine.

To this day, we say that a computer is Turing-complete to signify that it is able to do everything that a Turing machine can do, i.e. the limits of what is computable or not has not changed one bit since those days. What is perhaps even more striking is that the basic components of a Turing machine are extremely limited: you’re only allowed to read from a tape and, based on that input, the machine is able to decide whether to overwrite the contents or move the head left or right. That is all.

Gravity-powered marble computer in use.Gravity-powered marble computer in use.

So computation is the ability to take a bit of data and make a decision based on it. That is what computers ultimately do – in an extremely fast way of course. The marble computer is comparatively super slow but it has also been proven to be Turing-complete.

Julian’s InventaLand caters for gifted and twice-exceptional learners (high-potential learners who have a learning difficulty simultaneously) and is run by Julian’s Pathfinder Foundation ( The primary goal is to embrace diversity among the participating learners themselves, while helping them find like-minded peers to work with so as to foster an environment where each child is stimulated by interest-based topics through innovative pedagogies so as to achieve higher-order thinking, creativity, self-motivated learning, and self-assurance.

We are now in the process of planning the next term of Julian’s InventaLand. Any professional who may be interested to share their topic with such learners is encouraged to get in contact with Erika Micallef, the programme director, on the following e-mail, We are very much looking forward to the next InventaLand adventure.

Christian Colombo is a computer scientist within the Faculty of ICT at the University of Malta. Educators who might be interested in organising computer-science-related sessions or school visits at the faculty may get in touch on

Sound Bites

•        Researchers have found an injection of a specific blood factor can replicate the benefits of exercise in the brain. They’ve discovered that platelets secrete a protein, exerkine CXCL4/Platelet factor 4 or PF4, that rejuvenates neurons in aged mice in a similar way to physical exercise. This protein, which is released from platelets after exercise, results in regenerative and cognitive improvements when injected into aged mice.

•        Pouring flecks of rust into water usually makes it dirtier. But researchers have developed special iron oxide nanoparticles called ‘smart rust’ that actually makes it cleaner. The magnetic nanoparticles attract different pollutants by changing the particles’ coating and are removed from water with a magnet. Now, the team is reporting a smart rust that traps estrogen hormones, which are potentially harmful to aquatic life.

For more soundbites, listen to Radio Mocha Malta


•        Comet orbits are elliptical. It brings them close to the sun and takes them far away.

•        Comets are composed of three parts: the nucleus, the coma and the tails.

•        The nucleus is the solid centre component made of ice, gas and rocky debris carried from the early formation of the solar system about 4.5 billion years ago.

•        The coma is the gas and dust atmosphere around the nucleus, which results when heat from the sun warms the surface of the nucleus.

•        The tails are formed when the energy from the sun turns the coma so that it flows around the nucleus and forms a fanned-out tail behind it extending millions of kilometres through space.

For more trivia, see:

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