Hey, teachers! Teach those kids to code

16 Jan 2017

Alaidh Fox and Deirdre Hughes from Coláiste Bhaile Chláir in Galway at last week’s BT Young Scientist event. Fox and Hughes invented a wearable device to ensure greater accuracy in medicine using a Raspberry Pi device and Python code. Image: Connor McKenna

Coding has not yet arrived on the Irish school curriculum. As this year’s BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition shows, Irish schools are missing out, writes John Kennedy.

I say it every year and I’ll say it again: if you need a dose of positivity at the start of any year, come down to the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) at the RDS.

Any doubts you have about the future of a small country like Ireland to make it in the increasingly digital- and science-centric world of the 21st century will be removed.

The event provides a platform for us to realise and appreciate that when it comes to science and technology, our kids are among the best and brightest in the world.

‘When we talk about coding, we always talk about the kids – but no one talks about the teachers’

You will observe innovation, originality and ingenuity on a scale that is world-beating. Prepare to be astounded by the sheer breadth of projects spanning technology, physics, biology and social sciences. The intelligence and passion behind the ideas will leave an indelible impression on your mind.

This year, more than 550 projects were selected from a total of 2,091 from 375 schools. Out of the 1,142 students, there were more girls than boys taking part, with a ratio of 602 girls to 540 boys.

The crucial thing to understand about the annual event is that there is nothing really like it in neighbouring countries like the UK, for example. In its 53rd year, close to 90,000 kids have taken part in the event since it was founded by Dr Tony Scott and the late Fr Tom Burke after they saw for themselves the value of science fairs in the US.

In essence, the BTYSTE is a national treasure.

Land of saints, scholars … and coders

This year’s overall winner was Shane Curran, who developed a unique cybersecurity technology called qCrypt.

The quantum-secure, encrypted, data storage solution with multijurisdictional quorum sharing wowed the judges.

This wasn’t the first time we at Siliconrepublic.com had heard of Curran. We first interviewed him in 2011 when he was just 11, and we discovered he was something of a computing prodigy, who taught himself several coding languages and did his first Linux install when he was just 6.

In 2011, Curran was among a crop of young Irish coders who crossed the Siliconrepublic.com radar, all vying to be the first or youngest at something in terms of technology achievement. Their efforts were buoyed and supported by the establishment of the CoderDojo movement, which attempted to put right the dearth of computing education in Irish schools.

And for this reason, having seen Curran’s success and contemporaries like Harry Moran return with his new game for the App Store, this year’s BTYSTE was as poignant for me as it was positive.

I blame James Whelton. I first met Whelton, then 18, at a Web Summit event in the autumn of 2010. He was already famous for having hacked the iPod Nano and said he was being badgered by kids at school who were eager to create their own video games and do cool stuff.

I was impressed by how articulate and mature Whelton was. We both agreed it was a shame Irish schools didn’t teach technology and we promised we’d stay in touch.

Several months later, Whelton kept his promise and arrived unannounced at my office to reveal that the next day, he and Bill Liao of SOSV would be holding the world’s first CoderDojo at the National Software Centre in Cork.

This was in response to the fact that no coding was being taught in Irish schools.

Today, CoderDojo is a global phenomenon, with 1,100 dojos taking place every week in more than 66 countries worldwide.

The interesting thing about CoderDojo was that it gave kids a confidence and a collegiate spirit that I hadn’t seen before, and they started reaching out to the media on their own initiative to tell of their achievements.

CoderDojo was the springboard for a whole generation of young coders who would go on to make names for themselves including Harry Moran, Niamh Scanlon, Lauren Boyle, Jordan Casey, Harry McCann, Catrina Carrigan and many others.

Within months of the first CoderDojo, I received an email from a then 11-year-old from Cork called Harry Moran who had just become the youngest coder in the world to publish an app on the Mac App Store, a game called PizzaBot.

Moran inspired others to come forward and make themselves known, and before long, I was talking with other young coders like Jordan Casey from Waterford, who became one of Europe’s youngest iOS app developers, and Shane Curran, this year’s BTYSTE winner, who was also making a name for himself as a young entrepreneur.

Hurry up and recode the curriculum

And that’s why this year’s BTYSTE was poignant for me. The kids had delivered but once again, our waddling education system had not.

When I interviewed Moran, Curran and Casey five years ago for the first time, each of them said they wished coding or computer science would be on the school curriculum. They couldn’t wait.

Well, this hasn’t happened and yet these kids are succeeding in spite of the education mandarins who continue to dither.

When Moran demoed his latest game PizzaBot: Reheated last week, we both remarked on how coding never arrived in schools during his time. Moran, now a fifth-year student, is looking to his future; a future where artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, cognitive computing and more advanced technologies will raise the standard – and the bar – even higher.

As I walked through various stands last week, I was blown away by the sheer ingenuity of kids who were using software languages like Python and hardware like the Raspberry Pi to create amazing technologies.

For example, we spoke to Athlone Community College students Andrea White and Amy Fallon, who showed how it was possible to use machine learning to predict when a mobile phone or charger might explode; a technology they agree could have saved Samsung a lot of money in recent months with the recall of the Note7.

And there was Alaidh Fox and Deirdre Hughes from Coláiste Bhaile Chláir in Galway, who demoed their creation of an RFID bracelet, which, when combined with a Python programme on a Raspberry Pi device, could help in the accurate administration of medicine to the blind and elderly using audio descriptors.

All of these kids taught themselves how to code. Yes, their schools and teachers gave them the freedom and support to enter the competition but let’s face it: the kids taught themselves the vital coding skills.

This irony wasn’t lost on Philip Colligan, the CEO of Raspberry Pi – the creators of the tiny credit card-sized computers that are affordable and ingenious in terms of teaching kids the rudimentary skills of coding and hardware.

“What is remarkable here today when you talk to these kids is how they’ve learned how to program their Raspberry Pi and other computers in CoderDojos, Raspberry Jams and Code Clubs in their own time,” Colligan observed.

I hope the policymakers are paying attention. The future of work will be about workers coexisting with technologies like AI, machine learning, deep learning, cognitive science and more. To ensure a job or indeed any well-paid career in the future will require not only being comfortable with these technologies, but mastering them.

The lingua franca of the 21st century will be code.

So why is it missing from our schools at such a vital time?

The missing link will be teachers

In July, Minister Bruton said that coding in Irish schools was now a priority, and he cited CoderDojo as an example to follow.

In September, he revealed a plan that proclaimed a vision of Ireland having the best education system in Europe by 2026. The plan contained a range of actions that tackled everything from coding and computer education, to entrepreneurship and skills in order to win in the “war for talent”.

If they are serious, this will require the same kind of courage evinced in Finland in redrawing its education policy to become the best in the world.

One of the keys to solving the issue is to put computer science on the Leaving Cert curriculum.

But this won’t be easy, because there is a substantial missing link in all of this.

When we talk about coding, we always talk about the kids – but no one talks about the teachers.

Colligan said that even though the UK is an outlier in putting computers on its schools’ curriculum for kids as young as six and up to 16, there is one huge problem: a dearth in the number of teachers who can actually code themselves, let alone teach code.

Colligan estimates the skills shortfall in the UK alone to be around 15,000 teachers.

Avenues to resolving the problem will be very narrow unless we can get existing teachers fired up about coding, and also set in train the creation of a new cohort of teachers, who will arrive in classrooms with core coding skills. This won’t be easy because the entire tech industry wants people of this ilk too.

If we are going to avoid the same skills snare that the UK has found itself in, I would advise our policymakers to seek the wise counsel of Fionnuala Meehan, the new country manager of Google in Ireland.

Meehan, an education thought leader and a person who is passionate about putting coding on the Leaving Cert curriculum, is at the helm of Google in Ireland, one of the country’s largest employers with 6,000 people and growing.

In an interview with Siliconrepublic.com last year, Meehan said it was critical that the Irish government moves to add computer science to the curriculum in order to secure the jobs of the future.

Under Meehan’s leadership, Google has rolled out its own CS (computer science) First programme aimed at enabling any teacher to be able to pick up the skills to teach coding to children aged nine to 14, using Scratch, through a partnership with Trinity College Dublin.

She said last year that Google’s Call to Code competition has also seen a significant increase in female participation, going from zero in 2014 to 15pc in 2015.

The teachers want it. The kids want it. Now it is up to the policymakers to put coding on the curriculum.

Individuals like Curran and Moran are showing the scale of ambition and ingenuity in the hearts of young Irish students. Thought leaders like Meehan are showing how it could be done.

The Irish education system needs to be a leader, not a follower.

Report card: could do better.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years