From next year, computational thinking and “designing and developing digital outcomes” will become part of the core curriculum for all Kiwi kids in their first 10 years of school. Pic Getty.

In the 27 years since Marty McFly borrowed a little girl’s hoverboard to escape Griff Tannen’s clutches in Back to the Future II, we’ve waited patiently for the opportunity to fly over water, people and cars on our very own hover device – with no result. But now that kids are about to be taught “computational thinking” from their first year of school, the hoverboard may at last become reality, along with many other technological innovations.

The Government recently announced that from next year, computational thinking and “designing and developing digital outcomes”will become part of the core curriculum for all Kiwi kids in their first 10 years of school, and students in Years 11 to 13 who study digital technologies will develop specialised skills through new NCEA achievement standards. The $40 million package will also ensure that more than 40,000 teachers are upskilled to enable them to teach the new subjects.

Parents of young children may be wondering what computational thinking will mean for their primary-schoolers. Don’t 5-year-olds already have enough on their plates in learning to read, write and add numbers? Is it really necessary to teach kids about digital technologies at such a young age?

Vaughan Rowsell, co-founder of OMGTech!, is thrilled about the Government initiative because he says technology is evolving fast, “almost too fast. Understanding how technology works is key to inspiring the next generations of designers, creators, entrepreneurs and, well, pretty much every job in the future. We want to make sure our kids are the inventors of technology, not just the operators.”

Rowsell started OMGTech! to help demystify technology for kids, parents, teachers and politicians. He runs a series of nationwide events, OMGTech! Rangers, connecting people in the technology industry “to inspire kids to see what they can do with technology and to dream of having a job as a rocket scientist or a 3D designer or a game developer, and actually teach them how to do these things now”.

With a similar mindset, Frances Valintine created The Mind Lab by Unitec so students could become confident in utilising digital technologies, “to extend their skills and capabilities, because almost every industry is undergoing some level of digital transformation”. She says The Ministry of Education’s commitment to digital fluency for all students is admirable and reflects the action of many other governments in highly successful countries.

The Mind Lab has worked alongside hundreds of schools in teaching science and technology in ways designed to encourage problem-solving, collaboration and active learning. A post-graduate programme has taught more than 3000 teachers how to teach using digital technologies and with the introduction of the new school curriculum, Valintine hopes The Mind Lab will help many more teachers build digital understanding and confidence.

In a similar vein, OMG Tech! runs a Trail Blazers programme for educators wanting to learn how to teach technology subjects in a simple and engaging way, and a programme called Mana Tangata is for older kids wanting mentorship to get into a technology career or excel in a particular field.

Valintine says it’s important that children learn about digital technologies from a young age because they won’t find safe havens in legacy industries.

“Our children will utilise technologies that we can’t even imagine and many of these new technologies will have changed the job market before they finish school.”

She says it’s important for parents to understand that digital fluency is not at the cost of time spent on literacy or numeracy. “Digital literacy can be deployed across any subject area from mathematics, say in developing formulas or code or learning calculus online on Khan Academy, to English, in developing shared stories on Google Docs.”

To understand what is really meant by computational thinking, Valintine says it boils down to the simple process of developing a solution or process that a computer can understand and action. “For very young children, the ‘computer’ can simply be a human brain. A 5-year-old might write instructions for a friend that simply tells them how to move around a room without bumping into objects. Over time, this computational thinking would advance to students writing scripts or code to tell the computer to do things such as inserting an image into a webpage.”

She says that by starting with basic competency, students will build confidence that removes any nervousness.

For parents hearing that “coding” will likely be taught from Year 1 and wondering what that means, Rowsell explains that coding is really just how to give instructions to a computer or machine.

“There are coding languages which are our way of telling computers what to do with written instructions, like ‘do this thing’ or ‘when this happens, do that’. Computers are really simple and they like simple instructions, but it’s when you combine a bunch of instructions together that things get really interesting. This is what’s referred to as an algorithm. Like, add these numbers until you get a number bigger than 1,000 then turn off a switch. Or look at photos until you recognise a person. These are all algorithms we have programmed computers to do, and they’re really just simple instructions combined to tell a computer to stop selling tickets when a concert is sold out, or to tag friends in photos automatically on Facebook.”

Many young people imagine that studying technology will lead only to a job writing software from behind a desk, says Valintine, “when the truth is the opportunities are wide-reaching. In reality, technology includes areas such as data science, visual effects, robotics, electronics, internet of Things, cybersecurity, computer graphics, CAD design and web development.”

Robotics is an area that’s advancing rapidly, and Rowsell says future work will be in not only designing robots, but telling robots what to do. “Robots have been around for a while, but they’ve been pretty much exclusive to large format manufacturing, like car production lines. Now robots are smaller and can carry out tasks like picking fruit and packing boxes much quicker and more reliably than humans.

“Today robots can drive cars and trucks, and soon they’ll be able to perform surgery. “

“These are exciting times with infinite possibilities and opportunities for our students,” says Valintine.

“My hope is that by introducing students to the benefits of technology, far more students will continue their interest throughout secondary school to create a new generation of innovators, and the world will be their oyster.”

As for the hoverboard, Rowsell says it’s bound to already have been invented.

“There are so many amazing technology projects happening in garages, schools and on big technology campuses, that I am 100 per cent sure someone has done it — they’re just not ready to share it yet.”

Source: NZ Herald

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