A digital skills gap is looming. Within just two years there will be a shortfall of nearly a million skilled programmers and other technical professionals, according to the EU Commission, and the demand for programming skills already outstrips supply.
But how do we tackle this problem before the UK is left far behind the rest of the world and our young people arrive on the jobs market, without the skills they need? We spoke to James Downes from build-your own computer project kit company Maker Life about his solution to the problem.
Q: How can we solve this problem? What needs to be done?
A: I believe part of the problem lies in education – teaching children programming is difficult and requires hard skills, plus equipment can be expensive and difficult to use.
Fortunately, children are wonderfully adaptable and inquisitive. If we can provide the tools to inspire them to learn and succeed, I have every faith that they will take the opportunity. But in order to do that there are a few issues that need solving.
Q: One of the problems is definitely gender inequality. But how do we encourage more girls into programming?
A: Programming falls into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) group of subjects. Historically, STEM jobs have been seen as ‘male jobs’ for some reason, leading toys and kit manufacturers to design specifically for boys. You get robots and guns and giant walking spiders – projects that tend to appeal much more to boys than girls.
But coding is definitely just as much for girls as it is for boys and some of the biggest tech companies in the world are run by women. It’s incredibly important that we encourage girls to take up STEM subjects in general and create coding kits that appeal to both genders.
There are loads of interests and activities that are shared by even the most girly of girls and the most boyish of boys. Bigger kids love to discover the world around them, so a weather station or star-spotter may capture their interest.
Smaller kids love animals, for example, so a kit designed around animal noises could be fun. Even Lego is creating its own programmable kits!
Q: With programming kits already available which are aimed at children why aren’t these the solution to the problem?
A: They are! Or at least they could be – if they weren’t so complex. Most adults, let alone children, aren’t ready to jump straight into programming a home automation system quite yet. Starting with something complicated is more likely to confuse and scare children and teachers alike, putting them off trying other coding projects and programming in general.
Children, parents, and teachers all need to grow their confidence and understanding with simpler projects – such as a digital clock or weather station – that both children and adults can complete yet are interesting enough to capture the imagination.
Q: Don’t some of these kits risk being a bit dangerous for children?
A: Yes, and that’s a real challenge. Much like learning another language, it’s important that kids start learning programming skills as early as possible. In fact, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, has called for coding to be taught alongside other modern languages to develop programming skills as early as possible.
The problem is though that a lot of single-board computers require the use of solder to attach components. For younger children, this clearly isn’t safe. Even with teenagers, it might be asking a lot for teachers to supervise thirty youngsters with soldering irons. Not to mention the expense of 30 soldering irons in cash-strapped schools!
Creating kits that don’t require soldering is a simple design challenge that should be built into the brief, just like anything else. It’s possible to design pieces that can slot together or clip in place, making the connections without the need for a dangerous soldering iron. That’s been the key factor for all our Maker Life kits.
Q: Some of these kits can cause adults to scratch their heads – how can they be developed for children?
A: A large reason for the rapidly growing skills gap is that the digital revolution came almost too quickly. Parents and teachers aren’t digital natives themselves and were probably never taught coding when they were at school. As such, they often feel out of their depth when it comes to programming.
Some kits which have been designed for education require someone with existing programming skills to interpret the instructions. If a kit looks too puzzling for an adult to figure out, they won’t feel comfortable teaching it to children.
Instead, we need to develop kits that are straightforward and come with instructions suitable for anyone – professional or total novice. Parents and teachers will quickly grasp how the kit works and will feel comfortable using them with children. Working together on the kit and seeing it through to completion will grow everyone’s confidence!
Q: Do you think it’s fair to say that some kits can feel like hard work?
A: Unfortunately – yes, I do. Frustration and disappointment are the quickest ways to turn kids off learning anything – especially something that can seem as complex as coding. Kits that are just too tough can drain any sense of fun and excitement from the project almost as quickly as you start.
The aim isn’t to fast-track primary school children into becoming expert coders by age eleven, it’s to inspire them and build confidence in their abilities so that they want to keep learning and developing their skills.
To do this we need to make kits fun! If kids are enjoying what they are doing, they will want to keep doing it. If they can see their skills improve, they will feel a sense of achievement. Put those two concepts together and you get a fun, achievable coding project kit.
Coding isn’t just good for the labour market, of course. More and more aspects of our lives will be dominated by digital, so learning to code will be an important part of learning to interact with the world around us.
Everything from our clothes to our kettle will soon be digital and getting the most from them will require some understanding of programming. As an adult, that can be a terrifying prospect.
But we have the opportunity to prepare our kids for this new world by inspiring and developing these skills now. I think it’s time we grasped that opportunity with both hands!