What started as a thought to spark interest in computer science in our 10 year old daughter, who found her regular lessons too bookish and uninspiring, is slowly but surely evolving into a full-fledged structured program to introduce youngsters (ages 8 +) to the basics of computer programming (www.wibyte.in). Nearly 300 students from at least 20 countries across 4 continents have joined us in this amazing journey so far.
Programming, an important skill
Getting youngsters excited about Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects is something very close to my heart. I have conducted several workshops across India and Singapore around this theme. Wibyte’s coding program for youngsters is thus really just a logical extension of this passion with a specific focus on an extremely important skill, namely, computer programming.
Computer programming, or the art and science of getting a computer to do what we would want it to do, is projected to be an essential skill for the future generation. Youngsters across the globe are being introduced to computer programming for the logical thinking it inculcates, apart from being a creative enterprise.
Scratch – Our platform of choice
However, designing a program suited for young kids has its challenges. Firstly, we are dealing with young digital natives who are fluently interacting with amazingly complex technologies — some even hosting their own Youtube channels – but have had limited exposure to basic science and mathematics. Secondly, the landscape of technology is extremely dynamic with ever increasing abstraction.
The challenge thus is to build the right foundation and create strong enough mental models that enable, engage and spark curiosity in the young minds.
We chose Scratch from MIT labs as our starting platform as it provides the ideal balance between abstraction and engagement: youngsters can make programs that are engaging enough but still need sufficient work (and debugging) to get them to work. Hence Scratch can be used to illustrate basic programming structures like loops, variables, lists and functions etc. Also, the Scratch platform imbibes the values that are very important to us: openness and collaboration. Indeed, these are the pillars of our program.
Activity Based Curriculum
Our curriculum is activity based. We conduct interactive group classes where we introduce concepts not as stand-alone entities but through their application in games and activities. The difficulty level keeps increasing as we move through the classes, and we keep giving direct and indirect reinforcement of concepts. The role of practice and debugging and the occasional frustration that it brings cannot be overstated in an enterprise like programming.
Hence, every lesson in our curriculum culminates in an independent project that the every student must build on their own, at their own time.
An Independent Activity with room for creativity
In fact, the independent activity is the centerpiece of our methodology. It acts as the glue between the teacher and the student. Every activity illustrates and reinforces concepts which we have covered in the class, giving students the chance to grasp them in their own ways by doing the project. For every activity, we publish a basic marking criterion. But we also encourage students to go beyond the basics and try to earn bonus points, if they are clear with the basics. This creates the flexibility and gives room to every student to attempt the activity depending on their interest. Every so often, we see students unleashing tremendous creativity and initiative in making their projects.
Leaderboard and a Gamified Experience
The submission of the activity is where the excitement truly starts. We mark every project that we receive and provide timely, detailed and individual feedback – highlighting the areas of improvement and a clear point wise score.
Till date we have marked nearly 1700 Scratch projects!
The individual scores are then fed into a leaderboard that classifies projects based on their technical and creative merits, the highest category being the heavenly projects. These are outstanding projects, which we then share with the entire cohort. The leaderboard provides a gamified learning experience which we have seen drives students and encourages them to try more, as we say, in the quest for the heavenly tag! And the cycle continues class after class, activity after activity.
Our methodology underscores and inculcates the core values of openness and collaboration that we truly believe in. We want students to not only try to get better on their own, but also learn from each other. Hence, our classes have students from across the globe learning together. It is heartening to see youngsters building on each other’s ideas and even coming together to form remote teams to participate in design contests, in what looks like a glimpse of the world they are moving towards!
The right age
I am often asked what the right age for a program like this is. We have seen that our program requires significant independent work on part of the students, hence we do not take students lower than 8. The mean age in our program is close to 10 years (we have even had a few adults in the course), but interestingly, some of our highest achievers have also been less than 10! So my answer is simple, if you think the child is enjoying the process – and you would know when he/she is – then do continue. Else, there is always a next time. In programming language, n = n + 1. Scratch cleverly avoids this usage by using set/change variables, probably to calm parents who may fret over programming messing up with maths concepts!)
A humbling journey
All in all, it has been a tremendously exciting journey dealing with young kids and their sometimes innocent but truly deep questions. It is also deeply humbling to realize and respect each child’s own unique personality and strengths and how it shows directly and indirectly in their work (again, all comes through in the independent activities). And it is a great learning experience too, as we have to keep reminding ourselves that in an educational venture, the teacher has to be the best student at all times!
Looking to expand
We are looking to expand in multiple ways. If you are passionate about STEM education and would like to be a part of this exciting endeavor, in capacity of a curriculum developer, teaching assistant or a backend technology professional, please do get in touch.