Episode 1: A Universal Language
A discussion with Celine Boudier, team lead of the Code for Life initiative, reveals the importance of teaching children how to code at a young age. We explore how we can start introducing these all important life skills, discuss Code for Life’s accessible and engaging coding games and find out why you should never give up on your dream of managing a robotic football team.
Code for Life – An education initiative with a mission to create free open source games and teaching materials to help children learn to code. For more relevant reading material, go to our blog or follow @codeforlifeuk on twitter and facebook for live updates.
AI:MMO – Have a sneak peak at Code for Life’s second game (currently in development), where students can program an avatar on an adventure through space and time. Designed for 11-18 year olds.
Guests in order of appearance:
Celine Boudier – Code for Life Team Lead
Lilla-May – Year 6 student living in London.
Written and hosted by Holly Godwin
Produced by Green Barge Audio with original music by Nic Sims
Episode 1: A Universal Language
Hello and welcome to Pi & Mash – The show that takes a step inside the world of technology to shed light on the human stories behind the big ideas fueling this ever accelerating Information Age.
Given the nature of this exploding field, we decided for our first episode, we would cast our sights to the next generation, and how we’re moulding their opinions of the often misunderstood tech industry.
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Coding’?
For those of you who have tried your hand at programming, you probably come up with phrases like do loops, compiling and of course, the infuriating errors.
But for the rest of you that haven’t ever taken that first tentative step into the behind the scenes universe of computer science, it’s probably a lot foggier…
Code is a set of written instructions in any given programming language. A program is simply a text file made up of collections of these instructions working together to complete a certain task. Unlike a lot of spoken languages however, computer languages are highly logical.
To say coding makes the world go round would not be all that inaccurate in this digital age: it makes up the framework behind websites, apps and computer software; from instagramming your breakfast to launching a rocket, coding is behind it all.
And with the way things are going coding is set to be the next must have skill for new graduates. The tech industry is rapidly expanding, with more careers in sectors like software development up for grabs every day. But if the appeal of job availability doesn’t win you over, it’s still worthwhile embracing and learning these new skills in order to understand the world around you.
To shed some more light on the magnitude of the digital age from someone who has witnessed this shift firsthand, I talked to Celine Boudier:
I graduated as an engineer from ENSTA ParisTech – my major was mostly in computer science and robotics.
Software developer, roboticist, product owner and game designer.
…it’s important to know at least the basics of coding and computing and to understand the world we live in now. So, even if, I shouldn’t say, but even if you don’t want to become a developer, it’s fine, but it’s important to at least understand the basics.
We live in a digital world, everyone has a phone or laptop, etc. (not everybody but most people) and some people don’t really understand how it works in the background, and sometimes you can have, I don’t know, security issues and stuff like that.
When you find yourself in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, you don’t expect to be able to successfully communicate or have a full understanding of your surroundings.
The all too often judged millennials are described as ‘computer native’. Those of us who haven’t specifically studied computer science may be quick to jump on the latest social media bandwagon and able to restore our phones to factory settings, but in reality most of us have no idea about what’s going on behind the scenes.
The difference between the technological age and the foreign country analogy, is that you may soon return home to where others speak the same language as you in the latter, but technology is here to stay, so the sooner we understand it, the better.
We are the awkward in between generations, many of us clinging onto the idea that we can function in this ever changing environment without adapting. Even those of us who have adapted haven’t been exposed to these concepts until later in life.
I come from, I would say, the pre or beginning internet age, so I didn’t grow up with a phone or internet. I think it existed, but it really started when I was in high school and later. So, I didn’t grow up really knowing what a developer was. So, I knew about computers, I used one once *laugh*
Most of the current workforce probably remember the days of the broken glass dial up tone, Microsoft’s interfering paperclip assistant, and (for the millennials at least) endless hours spent on powerpoint, paint or touch typing during long ICT lessons. These skills are now outdated. Children in the U.K. are exposed to technology so frequently, from such a young age that they pick up many of these skills without the need for structured lessons, just as they learn to talk and walk.
So how do we make sure the next generation is prepared for everything this technology fueled century has in store for them?
…the uk decided to put computing at the heart of primary school curriculum and it was actually the first country to do so. Amazing right? *laugh*
The addition of computer science to the classroom happened a few years ago, in 2014 – so out with the old and in with the new! We asked ten year old Lila-May, to tell us what she thought of when she heard the term ‘coding’ –
…it’s basically something that tells the computer how to arrange itself. How to use it, because computers are not very smart things. You might think they are because computers have all these really smart things on them: apps,software, but actually that’s all coding. Coding gives them a software system that explains everything to them.
And one big part of coding is algorithms, because they tell coding… they put it into steps, so for example, in the morning… first would you brush your teeth or put your clothes on, well you would brush your teeth, so you give the computer the exact same steps.
And no, that reply wasn’t scripted. She may, however, have a future career in television.
Because of the basic logic that underpins programming languages, the concepts are perfect for learning at school age. Coding is slowly catching up with literacy and numeracy as a necessary life skill, and like any skill, the earlier you learn it, the easier it is. Children will have a firm basis of the fundamentals of coding before they’ve reached secondary school, leading them to bigger and better things.
What bigger and better things are these I hear you ask? Celine is a perfect example of how embracing coding and computer science can take you anywhere. Having majored in computer science and robotics, she then went on to work as a roboticist with Softbank’s adorable robot – NAO.
So yes, really small cute robots, and when I joined they had just won the contest to replace the Aibo robot for the RoboCup competition. So the robot was the official platform that teams had to buy to create football teams, robotic football teams, so I think that’s when it really started to *laugh* get off quite well.
If you thought coding could see you building robotic football teams, you’d probably have wanted learn coding at school too.
She then became the lead developer for a project for children with autism, creating games and apps for the companion robot – NAO – to help with communication, emotions, and offer small tutorials on basics like left and right, colours and much, much more.
So the kids react quite well to the robots or technology in general because it’s a bit simpler to understand than a human being. They’re really keen on the details, but sometimes have a hard time making a bigger picture out of it. And the robot is actually quite an ideal platform between just a screen, like a phone or a tablet, and a human being. So it’s actually a lot easier for them when they learn a concept on the robot and then apply it later to human beings, than to start on a phone and then maybe not be able to apply that knowledge anywhere.
I couldn’t help but wonder how she knew a career in software development was for her if, unlike school children today, she had not tried her hand at coding before having to chose her path.
I can tell you about it actually because I had a very great teacher when I was at primary school that brought us… We were in a disadvantaged area with other kids in my school, we didn’t know what a computer was and this guy just managed to bring us some second hand computers so we could play with them and it was like amazing! I was like oh my God..
Yeah, so I guess it happened in high school… so I said i knew about computers but… I didn’t play games… I didn’t know… I didn’t really know… I guess that you could make a living out of programming interesting things. Then I had a calculator for my maths school this big calculator the TI89 *laugh* from Texus Instruments, amazing. That you could use to compute things like logarithm etc, and I discovered you could use it to program a basic language, and I was like ‘oh wow! ‘ So, most people there were using it to cheat *laugh* so they would just write everything from the classes so they didn’t have to remember it for the test, the exams, obviously. And I was like ‘no I want to program games’ so that was how I started – I actually started programming games on my calculator and then I would force my friends to play it *laugh* or my parents – poor people… *laugh*
I’m not sure many of us could say we knew what programming was as children, let alone decided on a career based around it while still at school. Celine is most likely the exception to the rule here. We can’t expect children to stumble upon these relevant skills and career opportunities independently, and that’s why we need to make sure they have the best possible start in life.
Introducing concepts at such an early age also has the ability to prevent common misconceptions and stereotypes learned later in life.
Definitely – I think it’s this idea that, there are some cliches now that developers are just geeks that live in their mother’s cave *augh* – live in the basement and everything is dark and they don’t wash their hair and you know *laugh* – I think that’s just a stereotype, but if you ask people that’s probably what they say is the stereotype is of a developer,
But actually its really cool, when you work in a team to develop products, projects, you actually need a lot of different skills, but also like people skills etc. So, actually you can’t live in your cave *laugh*, it’s actually really cool.
And yeah, I think that’s when they understand that they can hack minecraft or the games that they love and that they can actually help shape the world. I think that’s what’s most important, make children understand they can help shape the world. I think that’s really empowering, that’s really powerful.
And if they start at a young age, the concepts are just easier for them. And if the concepts are there at an early age, it’s much easier for them if they’re interested in pursuing that, to learn more… actual programing languages.
Misconceptions that coding is in some way nerdy is not the only stereotype the tech industry has to contend with.
13% of new computer science graduates in the UK are female.. 13!
This gender gap is something a lot of tech companies are trying to combat. However, if children grow up seeing computer science as a male dominated field, it’s harder to prevent this misconception that ‘coding is for boys’ from making an impact. So how can we prevent this?
Yeah, I think that’s the case. So, there’s this amazing developer and writer called Linda Lucas, she gives a lot of interesting talks and she wrote a book called ‘Hello Ruby’ and she’s actually trying to teach coding to young children using books and things like that. And she has such a nice code which is something like ‘Little girls don’t know that they’re not supposed to like programming’
5 years old will actually still be a bit late for some of the stereotypes to start up. Most stereotypes I think actually arise a bit earlier, but it’s still a very good age to make them understand that they can do it and that it’s not something that is gendered – that developing or just games or laptops or computers are not gendered. Or really just diversity in general, not only for gender…
Education is of course often the key to changing opinions for the better, but how can tech companies themselves make sure that they have a more diverse range of applicants in the future?
Teaching coding at an early age has the potential to have a massive impact on the next generation. Arming them with the skills they need for the jobs they want, preventing some stereotypes from ever arising, and giving them a thorough understanding of the world around them. However, Introducing computer science to the new curriculum was not an easy transition… teachers felt like they’d been dropped into the deep end, often expected to teach concepts they themselves had never come across
Because actually the curriculum in the UK says what the teachers are supposed to teach the kids but it’s a bit vague. The teachers don’t necessarily have an understanding of coding and they didn’t feel like they were very prepared.
Expecting teachers, who had never themselves learned to code, to effectively teach the next generation was a big ask. Many teachers felt they needed more guidance. And that’s where free open source resources have come into their own, and where Celine’s current project plays an important role.
Yes – So code for life is an initiative whose mission to program free open source games to teach children how to program, but mostly to teach students how to program and in traditional… I would say, different concepts actually. We do have a first game called Rapid Router, which is for primary schools. So we teach children ages 5 to 11 really basic, but progressive algorithm concepts. So we’re using a graphical language called Blockly, which is an open source language used by Google, which allows them to actually drag and drop blocks to make a small van go alongside the road. So, the first levels are really easy so you would drag and drop ‘move forward’, ‘turn left’, ‘move forward’, so you just sort of follow the road, but at some point it starts to get really complicated, like with hours and hours of copy pasting ‘move forward’, ‘turn left’, and the kids are obviously like ‘ohhh that’s not really funny’. And then the next episode you introduce repeat loops, so it’s just a block you can use to say that you will repeat an instruction X number of times. And then it sort of makes sense because you don’t have to copy paste something 100 times, you just say repeat 100 times, ‘move forward’ then done! So the concept arises quite naturally and the children can understand it because they need the concept, it makes sense. So we’re trying to do that all along the game.
At the beginning of the initiative a teacher advised the team on the curriculum and where they were struggling to teach concepts. This meant games could be created that filled the gap between teachers understanding and kids learning. The games and resources also cleared up confusion for teachers themselves. The project is available to anyone and everyone
Yes so there are different aspects. First is really the idea of giving back. So it’s a game which is a project which really wants to help the community, help people, help children, help teachers. And it also makes sense that we would help other developers or people that would want to create project that could use our code quite easily. So that’s really this idea of giving back.
It’s also easier for us to collaborate using an open source project because it means that potentially the community building the project can be as broad as possible really. So, it’s really easily to gather more help, because we do need really quite a varied range of skills I would say to make the project happen, so it’s really good.
The team is now working on their second game aimed at 11-18 year olds, where students can create avatars that travel through space and time. The project has a dedicated, full time team along with plenty of volunteers. But where’s the motivation for a company to spend time and effort on an education project? Teaching coding skills to the next generation will most likely result in more people entering tech careers in the future, but that’s a long term outcome on an international scale, so what else?
So, the idea was really to promote computing education and to, I would say, make everyone understand how important it is nowadays, not only to ensure that children know that if they want to they can have a job in a tech industry later, that a developer is a thing and it’s a cool thing and they can do it if they want to – demystify that.
But also to help them understand the world we live in today. It’s really important, because really the world has changed from when I was a kid, it was completely different, a digital world, a computer world. So, it’s good for them to understand that. So, the idea was really to try to have that when the UK decided to add computing in the primary school curriculum, I think it was quite natural to start projects to help teachers help kids because, with the vague curriculum and the teachers quite afraid that the children will be better than they are *laugh* sometimes it’s true.
So yes so it’s a project that’s helping the kids, but also providing a wealth of teaching materials for the teachers, so it’s actually easier for them to, without thinking too much, create classes.
With well over 100,000 international users, we should watch this space. These wide reaching initiatives have the opportunity to rethink how we see the world around us. Why not give their current game a go at www. CodeforLife.education and see how quickly you can pick it up, or follow the link in the show notes to see a sneak peak of their upcoming game for teenagers – AI:MMO. Coding doesn’t have to be difficult, and if more companies take on educating the next generation, we could be looking at kids having wider opportunities in future.
Thanks for tuning into this week’s Pi & Mash.You’ve been listening to me, Holly Godwin, and the team here at the buzzing hub of Ocado Technology. Produced and edited by Green Barge Audio with original music by Nic Sims. Subscribe to hear the rest of our series wherever you tend to find your podcasts.