Teaching kids to code is very much vogue at the moment. The much vaunted digital skills shortage isn’t just a nostalgic cry for help either; those vocal about their concern are easily matched by the number of initiatives designed to introduce a new, creative side of computer use for those who’ve never had a go.
This week, I took part in a Secondary School coding challenge as part of Heathrow Airport’s community outreach programme. With the Learning to Work team, groups of Year 8 pupils had to build a robot from LEGO’s Mindstorm set and program it to traverse a simple course while racing the other robots.
Each session starts with a briefing and then a fantastic, inspiring video from Code.org (embedded below and well-worth watching). In it, we hear from technical celebrities such as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates talking about their coding experiences.
After this, the teams of four empty their zip bags and start building the robots. Of course, it would be tricky in the limited time available to teach the children a whole new programming language to get the robot to move, so instead, when the robot is built, they use the free Mindstorm NXT software that uses a simple drag-and-drop interface to put in the instructions.
Each instruction block can be customised with some parameters, such as angle of direction, speed and rotations (or duration of movement). It’s interesting to see how the kids approach this differently; the course requires a couple of turns from the robot, needing perhaps three or four instructions, but I noticed that some groups add dozens of instruction blocks.
Yet this behaviour is exactly the type of iterative process that software developers go through. Coding is about writing something, testing it, watching and recording the results, and then repeating. And that’s just what Year 8 did, hastily unplugging the robots, running across to the course, hitting the play button on the robot’s midrift and observing its behaviour.
While helping out where I could, I got talking to one of the teachers, John. He explained that what I remembered as Computer Studies in the 1990s gave way to ICT in the 2000s, which was more focused on developing business skills such as working with Word and Excel. However, this is gradually changing as we realise that those desktop capabilities, while useful, don’t really go deep enough into computer programming of any kind.
A further observation was the number of girls getting involved. The stereotype of coding being a boys-only pursuit is – thankfully – being challenged, and not before time. When I was at secondary school, morning break and lunchtimes provided free time for using the BBC computers and the participants were depressingly male-only for as long as I can remember.
The programmed LEGO Mindstorm robots racing along the course.
Chaos descends a little as the clock wears down and the five minute warning is given. It’s impressive how many teams cottoned on to the improvement iterations and in each of the two sessions, I was delighted to see one team get a robot across the finish line to win a prize. One team even got their robot to pirouette 180 degrees after crossing the line!
A simple show of hands at the end of the prize-giving suggested about a third of the audience would consider a STEM-based career. It’s perhaps too early to tell, but I genuinely hope some of them do. It was my teen years coding both at home and school that inspired me into software development and we need more youngsters to have a go too.