Coding the Future

17th September 2018


Sarah Rees headshot

Sarah Rees
Editor

To celebrate National Coding Week, we catch up with some of the Micro:bit Educational Foundation players to find out how they came to coding and what lessons they are learning from their work helping young people gain these useful skills.

Kavita Kapoor, COO, Micro:bit Educational Foundation

When did you first learn to code?

When I was about 12, I was bored on a trip to Central Milton Keynes Shopping Centre. My dad spotted a BBC Micro on display and showed me my very first program right there in the shop. We had an unused BBC micro at school so I was able to learn to code properly after that; I think it’s fair to say it changed my life.

What are the biggest barriers for young people getting into coding, especially girls and those from disadvantaged groups?

This is a timely question, as the Foundation has just run a Gender Workshop exploring these themes. The consistent issues are around access to the technology, articulate and confident advocates (including teachers or parents) and pathways to understanding which of these skills will be required in the workplace in the future. Working in these areas are the fundamental goals of the Foundation.

Why is coding important for young people today?

My time before the Foundation was spent building digital platforms to engage young people in diverse areas such as sports, music and arts. I found that algorithms underpin so much of what young people wanted to achieve, whether it be performance monitoring through their trainers or promoting a new album online. Coding is more important to young peoples’ ambitions than they realise.

What jobs are available for a young person if they enjoy/are good at coding?

According to Forbes in 2017, ‘65% of children starting school today will need skills for jobs that don’t exist yet’, so who knows? My hope is that young people today go on to automate the boring bits of our jobs and focus on the creative side of activities, inventing new jobs, workplaces, products and organisations that really improve lives.

What have you learnt from your work with the Micro:bit Educational Foundation so far?

By being consistent with our values and working collaboratively through partnerships, we are able to achieve so much from such a small team. I’m incredibly proud of the Foundation and all the collaborative projects that have helped to inspire the future generation.

Cigdem Sengul, Senior Researcher, Nominet

When did you first learn to code and what did you enjoy about it?

My first experience with coding was when I was in primary school. My dad bought a Commodore 64 and I started a basic programming course as a hobby. I wrote my first program by copying it from a book; it created a hot air balloon wandering around the screen! I was mesmerised. I enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of programming the most.

What are the biggest barriers for young people getting into coding?

I think it’s the lack of role models and family support that presents the biggest barrier. I was lucky to have a father who inspired me to be curious and get involved in technology early. Role models are even more important; you cannot be what you cannot see. As a female technologist, I work hard to be visible to hopefully inspire younger generations.

Why is coding important for young people today?

Businesses increasingly rely on computer code, and computers have entered every aspect of our life: banking, entertainment, health and food to name just a few. It is possible to find a job in any industry if you are good at coding, and especially within data analysis. However, young people should not think that as coders, they will sit in front of their computers and churn out code all day. The reality is very different: a good amount of time is spent communicating to customers and other engineers, designing solutions, reading, and documenting. Social skills and an appetite for learning are just as important for success in the field as coding skills.

What have you learnt from your work with the Micro:bit Educational Foundation so far?

Micro:bits are great for engaging young people and attracting them to the computing field, offering a natural entry point for coding. Micro:bits are small but very functional, with all the necessary components: a screen, sensors, buttons, and even a radio. Children – and adults – love inventing games with them, and when children start truly having fun with technology, great thinking and innovation become possible. I’m sure the micro:bit will inspire a generation of makers and inventors.

Anthony Kirby, Researcher, Nominet

When did you first learn to code and what did you enjoy about it?

I was part of the generation that developed alongside computers really. I started writing BASIC code on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and at school I was fortunate to be encouraged by one teacher to learn ‘C’ on an early PC.

What are the biggest barriers for young people getting into coding?

My daughter has just started her GCSE in computer science, and she’s one of only six girls in a class of 30. This gender imbalance is partly self-perpetuating, and I wonder if we are approaching the problem from the wrong direction. Lively gimmicks like making things ‘pink’ to try and tempt girls isn’t such a wise idea, as I think the girls who might consider studying technical subjects will likely react strongly against condescension. If we tell the girls these subjects are difficult or challenging you might get them interested!

Why is coding important for young people today?

Being able to code puts you in a position to control the technology, rather than be controlled by it. Coding is directly useful for a range of jobs, aside from the obvious ‘programming’ ones, which widens the career options for young people. Plus, learning to design and debug a program gives you plenty of skills that are generally very useful, such as problem-solving and knowing how to design something complicated.

Jonny Austin, CTO, Micro:bit Educational Foundation

When did you first learn to code and what did you enjoy about it?

When I was about ten my cousin showed me some BASIC commands on an Acorn Archimedes. We were trying to make a game in which you played as the Romans invading Britain. It wasn’t a very fun game, but I loved seeing something I’d coded run, and the sense of potential for all the things I could do.

What are the biggest barriers for young people getting into coding?

I think there’s been a lack of things to demonstrate how and why coding matters beyond games. It’s also not often considered a creative discipline, so a lot of young people feel like it won’t suit them. Coding is hugely creative and there’s scope for all kinds of backgrounds at different stages of digital production. We need to highlight how broad ‘coding’ can be.

There is also an issue around access. Despite more people than ever having their own computer (often in the form of a smartphone), these machines have become harder to program, and more complex. It’s harder to take meaningful first steps on an Android or iOS phone than it was to do so on a BBC Micro, so many young people don’t.

Why is coding important for young people today?

I think that all aspects of our lives, and especially our jobs, will come to involve elements of coding. It may not be in the form we see it today, but the art of telling a computer what to do will become more important.

Even for those with no desire to program a computer as their job, confidence and mastery over the technology that controls so many aspects of our lives are key parts of feeling empowered-by, not beholden-to that technology. Coding is a great way to learn about how these machines really work.

What jobs are available for a young person if they enjoy/are good at coding?

I think the opportunities are endless: science, engineering, medicine, design, special effects law, teaching, transport – all these and many more offer huge opportunities for coders to get involved and transform the industries.

What have you learnt from your work with the Micro:bit Educational Foundation so far?

That there’s nothing like working with a fantastic, motivated team!

Find out more about the Micro:bit Educational Foundation on their website. Nominet is a founding partner of the Foundation; read more on our involvement on our blog.

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