Teach your kids to code

17 Jan 2008

We team up with University of Kent to introduce Britain's children to the basics of computer programming.

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One of the great ironies of having a computer in every classroom is that not a single child in the class will know how to control it. Sure, they can turn it on, type a document, maybe even defrag the hard disk or tinker with the Control Panel, but how many could actually write a simple piece of code to make the PC do what they want, instead of what Microsoft does?

Computer programming has largely slipped off the curriculum in our schools and, although the industry, universities and PC Pro would love it to make a comeback, there's little sign it will. So, in an attempt to bring the sought-after skills and self-satisfaction of programming a computer to a new generation, PC Pro has teamed up with the computing lab at the University of Kent to help parents teach their kids to code.

We've created a 12-step tutorial to help parents sit down with their children at a computer and actually learn how to write the code that can manipulate a basic Java-based computer game. Over the next few months, we'll produce further tutorials covering topics such as basic website design, in an attempt to reignite enthusiasm for Britain's forgotten art of programming. And with PC Pro's computing enthusiast parents working alongside their children, it will provide an opportunity for mums and dads to pass on the skills they've inherited over the years to their family.

Nurturing tomorrow's techies

Why is it vital that we breed a new generation of programmers? Take one look at the statistics. According to a joint report from Microsoft, the British Computer Society and Lancaster University Management School, more than 150,000 new computing graduates are needed every year to fill programming positions vacated by experienced software developers. Yet, universities report that applications for computing degrees are at an all-time low. In a country that no longer has a manufacturing industry to speak of, we either take steps to address the growing skills gap in our computing industry or witness a vital part of the UK economy wither.

Worse still, universities report that the calibre of students arriving for computing-related degrees is woefully below par. Drop-out rates among first-year students are higher than average, as students arrive without the necessary skills. But then that's hardly surprising when you consider that students can achieve an A* grade in GCSE Information Communications Technology (ICT) without writing a single line of code. As one student told PC Pro last year when we revealed the deplorable state of IT education in our schools: "Although I like using a PC, by the time I got to the end of the course I was getting bored. I suppose if I wanted to work as a computer programmer I'd have carried on, but it doesn't interest me - they're just there as a tool."

Such indifference is hardly surprising given that the typical ICT GCSE syllabus includes modules on word processing, spreadsheets, health and safety, and the Data Protection Act, but never demands that children actually explore beyond the UI of applications and discover how software really works.

It's like giving children a calculator but never explaining the underlying principles of multiplication. "Teaching children office-automation skills borders on child abuse," says Dr Michael Kölling, the University of Kent academic, who's attempting to get the Greenfoot software we're using for our tutorial into schools across the country. "The main problem for us is they call it computing. Kids think that's computer science. It isn't productive, it doesn't stimulate interest. Children should be creative, they should get the joy and satisfaction that comes from seeing their ideas take shape."

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