Former Google product director Jessie Jiang explains why she set up Create and Learn to teach children about coding and computer science.
When Jessie Jiang began teaching her six-year-old daughter how to code, she didn’t foresee it becoming the basis for a new business endeavour. But an at-home activity inspired her to set up Create and Learn, an online education platform for children that focuses on coding, robotics and more.
Jiang started Create and Learn at the end of 2017, drawing on her experience in computer science. She received her PhD from UCLA, where she was mentored by a previous winner of the National Medal of Science.
After working in technology for a few years, she went back to study at Stanford Business School and realised she no longer wanted to “just create technologies”, but instead to make technologies “that work well for people”. That ambition saw her become a product manager and director at Google, where she helped build YouTube’s content distribution network and the Google Cloud platform.
‘Why would an eight-year-old need to learn Python?’
Jiang’s time at Google helped her understand how to get kids excited about coding and computer science. “When my daughter was eight, I had taught her all of the basic coding things already,” she says. “I could have just taught her Python, which is what people kind of naturally would do most of the time.
“But I was like, why would an eight-year-old need to learn Python? It’s not useful for them. They can learn it whenever they need coding skills to do something. Then, on the other hand, I was looking at cloud initiatives that we were doing at Google.
“My job as a product manager was not to code, but to really understand how computer science technologies were being applied in many different fields.
‘The ways they apply these tools are so much more interesting for students than the actual mechanics of coding’
– JESSIE JIANG
“It could be internet companies using it to learn about customer purchase behaviours. It could be gaming companies supporting online games. It could be financial companies using it to analyse stocks. It could be healthcare companies for managing records.
“It could be a moving company. It could be a sports company. It could be so many different fields. The ways they apply these tools are so much more interesting for students than the actual mechanics of coding.”
Looking at real-world problems
Create and Learn uses project and inquiry-based learning to teach children about technology and develop their critical-thinking and creativity skills in the process.
The curriculum is developed by Jiang and her extensive network, comprising science and computer science teachers and tech professionals from Google and other companies, among others. Lessons span topics such as AI, robotics and design.
There are also guest talks, with previous appearances from Pixar’s TonyDeRose, a senior scientist and two-time Oscar winner, and Dr Jeremy Frank, a group lead at NASA.
One of the platform’s primary goals is to teach children about “real-world problems and how to solve them”, according to Jiang.
“But it also really goes beyond that,” she explains. “Why do we teach kids why there are different seasons? Why the plants grow? Where the rain comes from? Because these are the things in our daily life that they need to be fully aware of when they are young, and then over time to learn more and more about.”
Of course, the lessons Jiang and her team teach differ based on the various age groups. “For instance, when they’re second grade or third grade or maybe even younger, the goal of teaching is to really have them realise AI is around us.
“We’re not teaching them the algebra, we’re not teaching the neural network. We’re teaching them to be aware of these things. For example, they love the idea that YouTube keeps giving them music they love because of AI and machine learning.”
For younger children, it’s about “bringing them more awareness and understanding of the world and the technologies behind it”, Jiang says. For the older groups, lessons begin to focus on understanding the “broader aspect of how these things are applied in ways that may not be immediately visible”, such as diagnostics, cures for diseases and more.
Preparing the pipeline
Another goal at Create and Learn is to fill the workforce of the future with people that are passionate and curious about STEM.
“It’s very interesting to learn STEM from an AI perspective and data-science perspective, not just from a pure coding perspective,” Jiang says. “Kids like to see how things are applied to solve the real problem.
“I think everyone gets motivated more if they actually understand why they’re learning certain things as opposed to just saying, ‘this is good for you, just learn it’. Our hope is to have every single kid learn of all these things.”
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