How coding gives kids ‘superpowers’ to better handle life

Nov 16, 2016
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Coding teaches kids that complex problems can be taken apart - and solved Coding teaches kids that complex problems can be taken apart - and solved Photo: Gregory Rule

On the drive back from school the other day, my 7-year-old son picked up on an animated telephone conversation I was having with my dad, who is 70.

“Just open Google Chrome and type in google.co.za and then type in what you’re looking for in the search box,” I told my dad, secretly wishing I had the patience of a call centre support agent.

“No! Google Chrome! The icon should be in the task bar at the bottom of the screen. Yes, Chrome. Click to open it!”

“No, just click it once!”

“Try that and call me back if you don’t come right.” Phew!

Sensing my desperation, my son chimed in to offer his support after I had hung up.

“Ja, Google is so cool. In class we use Google Chrome. We open Google and then type www.abcya.com. I’ll show you how to make a pizza.”

“Huh?” When I was his age, we were still learning to read “See Socks run! Run socks, run!”

So after dinner that night, I asked him to show me what he had learnt. Before long he had clicked the Grade 1 image link and selected his options.

By dragging and dropping the various ingredients (wholewheat base for me, thanks very much) and clicking the “Cook” button my steaming bacon, mozzarella and pesto pizza was ready in a flash. “How’s that for a pizza?” my son asked proudly.

We shared it, taking virtual bites by moving the cursor and hitting enter.

It’s this kind of interaction between young people and the technology in their lives that gets a guy like Justin Yarrow excited.

Yarrow is the executive director of CodeMakers, a self-funded technology education and youth empowerment non-profit organisation that works with learners and teachers from low-resource schools in Durban.

The organisation has three linked programmes that aim to skill, empower and inspire learners to understand and follow careers in science and technology.

A core component of the current programme is computer coding classes, where Yarrow and his team teach computer science fundamentals through Scratch, a visual programming language developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Scratch enables learners to programme their own interactive stories, games and animations and share them online.

“Coding helps teach logic, problem solving, experimentation, and troubleshooting all while being creative and giving kids a voice,” says Yarrow, who holds a PhD from Harvard University.

“They see that something that looks like magic is just a set of commands that they can understand and, more importantly, create themselves.”

He says coding gives children the confidence to know that they can make their own computer program, which in turn makes other problems easier to solve.

“We want them to know that complex ideas and problems can be taken apart, understood and reconstructed by them,” says Yarrow. “We want kids to know that they can be producers of knowledge and technology and not just consumers.”

Yarrow sees coding as something of a microcosm of life.

“We want kids to know that they can programme their life. It’s not that easy, of course, but if they know they are in the driver’s seat and understand the systems in which they live, they can make choices that help them arrive at the destination they want.”

The work of CodeMakers was the focus of a recent exhibition at the KwaZulu-Natal Society of Arts (KZNSA) in Glenwood, Durban.

The show was the culmination of a collaboration with the KZNSA in which Codemakers held a series of interlinked art and coding workshops where participants were asked to imagine what the year 2050 would look like.

Workshops were held over seven Saturday mornings where learners from Umkhumbane Secondary School, a school CodeMakers works with, pushed their creativity to new heights through drawing, painting, creating cardboard props and Scratch coding.

Analogue art was digitised and brought into Scratch to make the animations.

“The kids have become much more comfortable with technology and dive into the challenges . . . the hesitation that they used to have with the problem or the technology isn’t there,” says Yarrow.

“They know the problem is solvable, that the nut can be cracked. They just need to apply their minds to it and they do.”

Yarrow believes there isn’t enough emphasis on computer science at schools in South Africa and this country is lagging others in terms of investment in the subject.

He says in some countries computer science is being incorporated into the curriculum from Grade One and billions are being spent to mainstream computer science teaching to put it on par with reading, writing and maths.

Although thinking and learning about computer science doesn’t strictly require technology, computers makes it easier to implement. And the barriers to entry are getting lower all the time.

“Computers that allow learners to express themselves should be prioritised, and with the advent of low-cost computers such as the Raspberry Pi (R640 for a computer without monitor, mouse, keyboard) it's much easier to do so,” says Yarrow.

As is the case with my son, some schools in South Africa are teaching underlying computer science concepts from an early age through games and logic puzzles and then moving on to having them create their own at a later stage. However, this is sadly not the case for most learners.

“We meet learners that are graduating from matric and they have never used a computer, let alone know how it works,” says Yarrow.

“We also need to look outside of schools to educate kids. Community centres, libraries, and the home are all places where kids can learn from and have fun with coding,” he says.

“Software is free. We just need to help spread awareness and improve access.”

Top 5 reasons to teach kids to code

1. The ability to communicate with machines is probably the closest thing to superpowers that can be taught

2. Games and apps with visual programming languages teach programming logic and concepts before kids can read

3. There are many early learning benefits for young kids as they transform from environmental perceptions to logical connections

4. Kids become fluent with technology, going from simply interacting with it to creating it and expressing themselves in new ways

5. Over the next 10 years programming will be one of the fastest growing occupations – so we need more programmers! – Source: kodable.com

By Gregory Rule

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