Computing in schools: teaching the next generation of computer scientists

Tom Kenyon from Nesta says that to inspire the next generation of Tim Berners-Lees and Ada Lovelaces, we need to excite children about the art, as well as the science, of computing. This is from the Guardian…

The Department for Education’s announcement that computer science will be included in the science options for the English Baccalaureate, not to be confused with last week’s announcement to keep the GCSE qualification, was welcome news for those who want the nation’s school children to move from being digital consumers to digital creators. It was an important milestone in a two year campaign that began with Nesta’s Next Gen report and was passionately led by Ian Livingstone and Alex Hope with a range of industry partners.

As I’ve discussed here before, it is vitally important that creative computing becomes as essential part of the school curriculum and last week’s announcement was an important step forward. Further still, there is the hope that it not only inspires those considering the EBacc, but that it improves the overall quality of computer science teaching and student involvement.

We now need to look at how computing can be taught in a way that inspires young people to learn through making. There are lessons we can learn from the success of initiatives outside of school that support students to learn or improve programming skills. Organisations like Young Rewired StateApps for GoodCode Club and Mozilla WebMaker show how solving real problems and harnessing creativity can inspire young people to want to understand computational thinking and programming.

We can also draw inspiration from our heritage as a great computing nation. We have a history at the forefront of computing, from Ada Lovelace‘s work on the analytical engine to Tim Berners-Lee‘s creation of the world wide web – which celebrates 20 years in the public domain on 30th April this year. Yet people such as Lovelace or Berners-Lee are not part of the national consciousness in the same way as Shakespeare, Brunel or Lennon.

Even contemporary role models are ignored. The Next Gen report showed only a tiny proportion of schoolchildren knew that the likes of Grand Theft Auto, Lego Star Wars and Singstar were created in the UK, with the majority believing that they were produced in either the US or Japan. It is time we celebrated our success in engineering, digital media and video games as loudly as we celebrate our success in other creative industries. If we are to inspire a generation to be the creators of the next multi-billion pound computer game, ARM microprocessor or Hollywood visual effects artist, we need to give them heroes they can aspire to emulate.

Last week’s second big announcement regarding computing in schools came from another British success story, the Raspberry Pi. Google and Raspberry Pi have committed to give 15,000 Raspberry Pis to school children across the UK. Nesta’s recent report Decoding Learning showed that no technology has an impact on learning in its own right and the report cautioned against seeing any single technology as a solution to education. Nevertheless, I find this an exciting development because the Raspberry Pi is a makers’ tool. You can learn to code on any PC with a browser, but the Raspberry Pi has a low enough price point that it can be used to create programmable gadgets from motion-detecting cameras to internet connected weather sensors and more. The possibility of making something physical using computing immediately opens your mind to the creative opportunities that a bit of code can give you. Creativity is key.

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