Hey Ivanka, Here’s The Blueprint for Making a Maker

Hey Ivanka, Here’s The Blueprint for Making a Maker

Categorized under: computer science education for kids

Recently, the administration led by Ivanka Trump announced that they would annually commit $200 million to increasing access to high quality STEM education. The primary goal of this funding is to better prepare students for the high-paying jobs of tomorrow. The main gap that this funding is trying to solve for is the lack of access to computer science coursework within schools along with the differential availability of this curriculum among rural students, minorities and females.  In addition to the administration’s commitment, Amazon, Facebook, Google and other companies stepped up to offer $300 million in annual funding for a total of $500 million in annual commitments to support these programs over the next 5 years. For the past several years, we have been building a business that is focused on developing creative problem solving skills using technology with our students. In this post, we will lay out our roadmap for what public/private partnerships along with government support should be focused on in order to create an ecosystem that is conducive to kids developing a high level of fluency in technology so that they can become the creators of tomorrow.

Pre-K - It’s Never Too Early to Get Started

In numerous pre-K studies, there has continued to be a debate on the utility of these programs. Based on a recent study entitled The Current State of Scientific Knowledge on Pre-Kindergarten Effects that was headed by leading researchers in the early childhood education field, the message was clear, “Kids who attend public pre-school programs are better prepared for kindergarten than kids who don’t”. There are two areas of focus that are often studied: emotional and social development or skills specific literary (i.e., numeracy and literacy). For this question, the findings were clear:

“Instruction built on social and emotional skills, rich play, toys, games, art, music and movement complements explicit instruction focused on things like learning to count and matching letters to sounds and words. Both benefit kids' readiness for school.”

While this study along with countless others was focused on school readiness, we believe there also needs to be an understanding of when we start providing kids with exposure to the technology skills and mindset that will be instrumental to success in their future careers.  If pre-K provides the right building block for school readiness then there is no reason to think that we can’t start kids along the path for technology fluency during this time period as well. Through our Lil Coders program, we have found that kids as young as 4 years old can grasp key concepts of technology by combining age-appropriate storytelling with technology skill development.

The natural tendency will be to apply these funds within the primary and secondary school environment. However, just like we don’t wait to begin numeracy and literacy development until elementary school; neither should we wait to begin to development of technology fluency. And, given the urgency we can’t wait for decades of research to tell us what we know to be intuitively correct; the earlier you expose the mind to a topic the more synapses and internal linkages develop within the brain which makes initial development foundational to overall success.

Elementary/Middle –Show me how the tools in the toolbox work

As kids enter their primary school years, they should rapidly build on the foundation developed in pre-school. During this time, they should explore projects across a wide variety of hardware/software platforms. 

The key during this time period is to understand the logic and methodology behind how to build great projects and ultimately products using technology. At Digital Adventures, we liken this to the period of time when they learn the difference between a toolbox that carries all the tools and the features of the individual tools within the toolbox. Often there is a rush to get kids to learn a specific language (Ruby, Python & Java) instead of exercising patience and getting them comfortable with the types of problems they will need to solve along with the associated boundary conditions. With this emphasis, students can understand at the highest level what they are being asked to solve and develop fluency is deconstructing the problem down to it’s key elements and then re-constructing the solution using various platforms. We often describe this as the ‘hammer and nail’ problem. If you only learn how to solve problems using a ‘hammer’ then everything ends up looking like a nail. On the other hand, if you realize that there are a variety of tools that you have at your disposal then you know when it’s appropriate to use a hammer and when a screwdriver would be a much better tool for the job.

In addition to developing acumen with the logic and methodology, it is important that the assessments are focused on skill development. Do they understand how to use a conditional statement to achieve a given outcome? Are they able to incorporate loops to automate their code to repeatedly perform a certain task? However, these assessments should not be conducted in isolation. Instead, it needs to be contextualized within the framework of how the understanding of a key concept was leveraged in the ultimate construction of building a project or product. This connects the dots for students with how their skill development applies to real-world situations.

High School – Give me the freedom to go out on my own

Nearly 60 percent of high schools do not offer computer programming courses. Of the 17,000 high schools that were accredited to offer advanced placement exams, only 18% were accredited to teach AP – computer science.  By the time students get to high school, they should have built a variety of projects using a wide variety of tools and ultimately have an intuitive understanding of the logic of how to solve problems using technology.

At this point, they need to expand out further into projects of their own choosing and interest. By providing students with the freedom to explore, we move them into the highest form of knowledge; the ability to create based on problems they have identified in the world and the capability to develop solutions based on their skills. During this time, students may ask to develop their own mobile applications, websites, virtual reality worlds and cryptocurrency applications.

It is at this point where through exploration and development, they learn what programming languages are most appropriate for a given solution under consideration. They also should focus time on co-developing solutions with peers through paired programming – an important professional skill is the ability to work well with others. This creative solution development period will also lead simultaneously to the most frustration and reward as they experiment with many different approaches to solution development; some of which will work as intended and some which will not. Under the guidance of a skilled instructor, they can begin to anticipate some of these challenges and also develop one of the most essential skills for success in computer programming; troubleshooting and debugging.

Over their formative years (Pre-K, Primary & Secondary), parents should work to identify opportunities to facilitate their children’s technology development journey. The new funding from the administration along with corporate investment should increase the availability of programs/platforms to aid in this journey. However, it is important for parents to play a key role in their child developing the creative problem solving skills using technology that will ultimately make them independently capable of solution development. In addition, while $500 million dollars seems like a large number. Keep in mind that we collectively spend $37 billion dollars on early childhood, pre-K education. So, let’s treat this initial funding like a minimum viable product, collect some data, and figure out which experiments we need to double down on in order to get more students the technology fluency they need.

About the Author: Omowale Casselle is the Co-Founder & CEO of Digital Adventures.