Entrepreneurs and educators are refining and boosting their efforts to teach children and teens how to code and program — both in schools and supplemental programs. Their work is highlighted this week, the national Computer Science Education Week.
A fire crackles in a small clearing inside a dark, dense forest. Large yellow eyes flash and a wolf stares back as mysterious footsteps approach from behind.
It’s not the opening to a horror film, but a virtual-reality game called “Hearing Through Darkness” in which players shoot lasers at attacking wolves. The game is being developed by four teenagers. Ethan Busse, Elliot Busse, Michael Lai and Nathan Boss, all students at Highline Big Picture School, are interns in a program at Foundry10 in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood.
Foundry10 provides interns with resources and mentors to create pretty much anything they want, be it video games, underwater robots or even hip-hop dance performances. The organization studies how and what kids are learning, in part to help determine how students can learn technology concepts.
Monday marks the beginning of Computer Science Education Week, a global push supported by tech businesses, teachers and educational organizations to encourage kids to learn to code. The week is part of a growing call across the tech industry to apply more coding education in schools to equip kids for the technological world.
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The week is organized by Code.org, a Seattle coding-education company that sponsors tutorials around the world. More than 100,000 teachers are expected to participate in this year’s Hour of Code, a short tutorial that teaches kids the basics of computer programming.
Technologists predict computers will be even more prevalent in the future than they are today. Machines will be involved in many, if not all, aspects of life.
That’s why several entrepreneurs, largely funded by tech companies, are building games and programs to create new ways for kids to learn about technology.
“How does every child feel that they are the master of the world around them and not at the behest of the machines?” asked Vikas Gupta, co-founder of coding-robot startup Wonder Workshop. “In order for us to give kids that agency, that sense of power over the world around them, we need to get them to code.”
Other organizations, including Code.org and board-game maker Robot Turtles, are joining Wonder Workshop in a growing industry that seeks to teach kids how to interact with technology, even when they aren’t in the classroom.
For years, educators and tech- industry leaders have pushed to integrate technology into basic education. But some have raised the concern that kids may not be catching on sufficiently to complex technological concepts.
“I believe sometimes people underestimate what kids are capable of,” said Lisa Castaneda, co-founder of Foundry10.
Mentors and experts recruited by the organization to work with kids often tell Castaneda that the students raise concepts or look at things in ways they hadn’t thought of themselves. Foundry10 works with a psychologist to meet with kids at the beginning, middle and end of their internships to assess what they’ve learned in a way entirely unlike a standardized test. Castaneda points to the results. The kids, who don’t pay to participate, often finish video games or robotic projects, and learn more about creative problem solving.
Research from Foundry10 shows that game design in particular is beneficial to learning how to program.
“Computer-science concepts that are fundamentally difficult can become much more accessible when explored via game design,” researchers wrote in a Foundry10 paper last year.
Gupta, of San Mateo, Calif.-based Wonder Workshop, chose to focus on tangible technologies to teach kids.
“Kids can grasp programming concepts at a young age,” he said. “What’s often lacking are the tools for them to learn those concepts.”
Wonder Workshop has two small robots, Dot and Dash, that can be programmed to use a “drag and drop” method on an app, a technique used often with kids to get them comfortable with basic programming commands. The robots can walk, talk and respond to voice commands. The company found that children respond well to physical components, and being able to program a robot in front of them makes it appealing to learn to program commands, Gupta said.
During a recent tech event at the Zillow Group’s Seattle headquarters, younger children constructed towers with blocks and built spaceships with motors and markers. Middle-school and high-school kids programmed with the kid-friendly programming language Scratch, created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab.
Noga Khen, a Shorewood High School sophomore, taught a computer to calculate the number of fingers when given a certain number of people.
“Ever since today, I’ve decided this is what I want to do,” she said.
Necessary digital natives
Code.org and Wonder Workshop aim to provide technology training in schools, but they also work to make sure kids have tools outside of school. Some entrepreneurs start with even younger kids.
Seattle entrepreneur Dan Shapiro, now running Glowforge, a 3-D laser printing company, created the Robot Turtles board game in 2013 to teach his two young children the basics of coding.
“If you give kids access to something early on, whether it be reading, math or computers, they just take it for granted,” Shapiro said.
Coding games for kids are really about teaching the basics of logic and problem solving, said Scott Jacobsen of Madrona Venture Group, which has invested in Wonder Workshop. Technologies for kids teach how to match the analytic and creative parts of the brain, he said.
To do that, they must first be appealing to kids. That partly explains the emphasis on game design, an area kids are familiar with and which carries a bit of a cool vibe. Code.org’s online tutorial even partnered with Disney and Microsoft to add Minecraft, “Frozen” and “Star Wars” characters to lessons, just one more way to make technology accessible.
Founders of companies working on tech for kids, however, insist that the games and programs are not exclusively for kids who want to be computer scientists. Everyone, they say, will need to know how to speak to computers.
In developing the Scratch programming software, MIT researchers sought to teach basics of coding in a creative way.
“For us, coding is not a set of technical skills but a new type of literacy and personal expression, valuable for everyone, much like learning to write,” Scratch co-founders Mitchel Resnick and David Siegel wrote in a post on Medium last week. “We see coding as a new way for people to organize, express, and share their ideas.”
Many entrepreneurs agree. “It’s not that kids need to learn a particular programming language,” said Hadi Partovi, co-founder of Code.org. “It’s learning how apps work, how basic technology operates. I can’t imagine being a functioning member of society in 30 or 40 years without knowing that.”
Back at Foundry10 in Wallingford, Ethan Busse and his team have been putting some of the thinking behind teaching coding and programming into practice by building their video game.
The team was particularly interested in how audio can be incorporated into virtual reality.
“You can listen to sounds around you to look for clues or enemies nearby,” Ethan said.
In the horror game, players try to stay alive by listening to sounds in the forest and determining the best time to attack the wolf. The four teens are playing the role of animator, programmer and 3-D modelers to complete the project; they’re hoping to be done within the school year through the twice-weekly Foundry10 internship.
“You learn how to teach yourself things, which is really helpful,” Ethan said. “Now I know how to figure things out by myself, which is huge if I want to do this for a living. Which I do.”