Friday, October 26, 2012


Sometimes you have to look to Estonia for  innovations in teaching kids about computers.

Several recent articles  Forbes, Gigaom,  UbuntuLife) laud a new government sponsored pilot program that aims to teach programming to every child in the country, starting in the first grade.

Here are excerpts from the Forbes article:

Estonia, a small country with a population of 1.3 million people, punches above its own weight when it comes to advancements in tech. It was the birthplace of Skype, one of the first countries to have a government that was fully e-enabled, and now it has launched a nationwide scheme to teach school kids from the age of seven to 19, how to write code. The idea isn’t to start churning out app developers of the future, but people who have smarter relationships with technology, computers and the Web .

There are 550 schools in this Eastern European country, and as the new term starts this month around 20 of them will take part in the pilot program….

This is the brainchild of Ave Lauringson, who  knows it’s unusual for a nationwide school system to teach kids about coding at this young an age. “It’s a unique project. [Other countries] want to start programming in secondary school, but they don’t dare to start in the first grade.”

So why start so early? “We want to change thinking that computers and programs are just things as they are. There is an opportunity to create something, and be a smart user of technology,” she says.

For the youngest students, the new courses  won’t be strictly focused on learning programming languages like Java, Perl and C++. Rather they’ll ease kids into the necessary skills for coding like logic, which has the benefit of some overlap with subjects like math and potentially, robotics.

“We have only 1.3 million people, so it’s very easy for us to develop these kinds of projects,” says Lauringson. “Estonia is like a little model country to start new projects like this.” She adds a note of caution though: “We dare, but we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The Gigaom article elaborates:

“The first e-courses are meant for primary school teachers and they will take place at the educational portal (Koolielu is Estonian for “school life”) that the Foundation maintains,” the group’s head of training, Ave Lauringson, told me. ”We expect about 30 teachers to take part in the first course. So we are just taking our first steps now, but we intend to expand the program significantly.”
The idea — which is being developed with funding from the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research — is that children in grades 1-4 will take coding classes as part of their normal curriculum. After that, they can join extracurricular “coding clubs”, explained Lauringson.

Since gaining its independence from Soviet Union more than 20 years ago, its politicians and business leaders have followed a deliberate, direct path to try and build the country into a technologically-advanced nation.

These days most of Estonia’s government services are run online, most of its banking is done online, and there’s a significant corps of programmers who have built some really important companies. It’s working, and Tiger Leap’s idea is clearly to try and muscle that advantage along even further.

This project is an initiative  of Estonia’s Tiger Leap Foundation, a 16-year-old, government-sponsored organization that promotes technology and science in schools.  Wikipedia notes that this project was first proposed in 1996 by Toomas Hendrik Ilves, then ambassador of Estonia to the United States and later President of Estonia, and Jaak Aaviksoo, then minister of Education.  Funds for the foundation of Tiigrih├╝pe were first allocated in national budget of 1997.

Kudos to Toomas, Ave and Estonia!  Keep an eye on this small country.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Earlier this year, The Kernel published a great piece by Andy Young, worth reading in full, that makes a passionate case for teaching kids to code.  Here are a few excerpts:

The use of tools is a big part of what make us human, and the computer is humanity’s most powerful tool. . .  In offices and homes the world over, each and every one of us at some point undertakes tasks of a repetitive, tedious or complicated nature, tasks that could, are or eventually will be automated or eased by computer. The computer makes us more efficient, and enables and empowers us to achieve far more than we ever could otherwise.

Yet the majority of us are entirely dependent on a select few, to enable us to achieve what we want. Programming is the act of giving computers instructions to perform. This is true whether the output is your word processor, central heating or aircraft control system. If you can’t code, you are forced to rely on those that can to ensure that you can benefit from the greatest tool at your disposal.

Who can shy away from the attractiveness of giving instructions and having things done on your behalf? The ability to code is what brings the power of computing to the masses. We need to break away from a culture where we consider people to be “technical” or “non-technical” – not everyone takes to literature or eloquent composition of prose, but we need to attack the phenomenon of the “non-technical” in the same way that we tackle illiteracy.

Young also takes care to articulate what coding is and isn’t.  Learning to code, he explains, is not training to be a professional programmer. Learning to code is not even necessarily learning to become fluent in the syntax and functionality of a specific programming language.   Learning to code is learning to use logic and reason, and express your intent in a consistent, understandable, repeatable way.  Learning to code is learning to get under the skin of a problem and reduce it to its simplest form.

Learning to code, he continues, is learning not to be afraid of experimentation and developing a basic understanding of concepts that allow you to take things and tweak them to fit your needs.
Young also points out that early training in computer science will allow future professionals to potentially get a decade of early experience, giving them expertise that will accelerate their professional training at university or on the job.

He concludes:  “a thorough grounding in logic, reason and problem-solving – coupled with the empowerment and inspiration that being able to harness technology to our personal advantage brings – will result in a smarter workforce, more engineers, innovators and managers that better understand technology, and a better quality of life for all. So let’s teach the kids to code. All of them. ”

There are many interesting links in the article and a lively discussion in the comments that follow.
Coding for Success by Any Young published January 23, 2012 in The Kernel


Minnesotans like to think of our children as above average.  And we pride ourselves on our high tech industry and general high techi-ness.   So you’d guess Minnesota would be a leader in educating our children in technology, specifically in computing and computer science.

In fact, Minnesota ranks near bottom – 47th out of the 50 states.  A 2010 report from the professional society ACM, the Association of Computing Machinery, (excerpted here)  gives Minnesota a score of 9 out of 100.    We are failing to educate our children about computing and computer science.

This matters, because programs control significant parts of the world we live in.  If you understand basic concepts of coding, this world is comprehensible, adaptable, manageable.   If you don’t, it’s all gibberish, or magic.

Today’s programmers don’t just crunch numbers, they move robots, manufacture prototypes, build web sites and phone apps, tell stories and connect people across the planet.  Computer professions are expanding – both in traditional fields like information storage and access, and in these new areas of digital media and digital control.

We are not growing nearly enough computer professionals, barely a quarter of what’s needed to meet the current job vacancies.  The National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT) supplies excellent statistics, including that only 29% of the 1.4 million new jobs in computing science that will become available between 2008 and 2018 can be filled by the current pipeline of computer bachelor’s degrees.  Even if you include associate and masters degrees, it barely passes 60%.

Another critical issue is that the industry and the pipeline are not nearly diverse enough.  As our nation’s demographics change – “white” males are now less than 25% of the babies born in America – we must attract both traditional and non-traditional students into Information Technology fields.   We need a diverse workforce because diversity of mind and experience are the best path to creative, collaborative problem solving.  And there are plenty of problems to solve in the world!

So who will code the future?  And what are we doing now to prepare them?  Alas, not enough.  Even in 2012, very few kids learn to code in school, though there are organizations, including Computing in the Core and Computer Science Education Week and CSTA  that are trying to change that.

Fortunately there is a growing “ecosystem” of innovative organizations creating out-of-school experiences that inspire kids from all walks of life and help build the next generation of computer professionalsThese deserve your attention, and your support. Two of my favorites are Black Girls Code and Mouse.

Black Girls Code  is a non-profit organization founded last year by Kimberly Bryant, dedicated to teaching girls ages 7-16 from underrepresented communities about computer programming and digital technology.  They’ve completed a hugely successful “Summer of Code” hosting classes across the country.  Here’s a great blog posted in Scientific American about their Summer of Code project.

Mouse  is an innovative youth development organization based in New York City that empowers underserved students to provide technology support and leadership in their schools, supporting their academic and career success.  Mouse has been in operation for over 15 years, has 439 active Mouse Squads nation-wide and has served over 18,000 young people.

There are many other projects, nationally and internationally, focusing on these issues:
  • A new organization  is doing a terrific job of raising the visibility of closing the gender gap in the computing profession.   Their PR launch last week touted articles by the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Time and many more, plus financial support from Google, E-Bay, General Electric and Twitter.    Their first 8 week class for 20 girls met this summer.
  • Coder Dojo is a global volunteer collaboration based in Ireland providing free and open learning to young people, especially in programming technology.
  • For a peek at some innovative possibilities of in-depth engagement, check out the projects funded by The Hive, the Digital Media Learning Fund of the New York Community Fund.
Across the country and beyond, kids are programming robots, creating smart phone apps, producing animation,  inventing video games, mastering digitally controlled manufacturing and more.  When kids learn to code, they move beyond just USING technology, to making, building, producing.  A non-profit called Code Now says it best:

“Coding is the new literacy. It gives individuals the power to innovate and create. We need to empower our youth – especially those from underrepresented communities – to be the next great technology pioneers. “