STEM learning is a necessary discipline that hasn’t been fully adopted into American curriculum.
Think about it – when we were young we learned basic math and language arts. Why? Because being able to communicate would be important as adults, being able to calculate would be important as adults. They started us young because those subjects would be a part of our everyday lives.
We didn’t learn the basics of computing in elementary school because there was no need. It was a niche discipline for some of us, and it didn’t even exist for others. For today’s students, computers are very much going to be a part of their lives. It already is. So why don’t we start early to teach them about programming?
Microsoft has seen the writing on the wall and aims to do just that.
Building a Foundation
While the company might only enter the classroom through technology like the Surface tablet, in the summertime Microsoft is introducing students to the basics of coding. A venture of Microsoft’s Learning Experience Team, children can sign up for free week long YouthSpark Camps. The aim of Microsoft’s YouthSpark Camps is to get kids of all ages coding, creating games and apps, and having a blast in the process.
“Microsoft’s mission is to help people achieve more with technology,” says Kelly Soligon, General Manager, Worldwide Marketing Microsoft Retail and Online Stores at Microsoft. “So we as store teams say that we can translate that directly to interacting with customers. A big piece for us is around youth and education, in particular STEM-based education and getting kids who may not have access to technology on a regular basis hands-on with that technology. So we use our stores to do that.
Let’s go back to math and English. When we’re young, we learn the building blocks – addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, spelling, grammar, etc. This pedagogy provides us with a foundation that informs more advanced disciplines we might reach down the line – calculus, geometry, exposition, rhyme scheme, what have you. That’s how learning works, right? You start small and work your way up.
“YouthSpark is a Microsoft philanthropic arm dedicated to youth and STEM education,” says Soligon. “We’ve partnered with that arm of Microsoft for the past six years to offer summer camps. Our series this summer is for kids eight and up, we have a beginner, intermediate and advanced curriculum around coding.”
I got the chance to sit in on a Kodu Makerspace course at the local Microsoft Store in Natick. What’s cool about Microsoft’s camps is that they provide a space in their stores, called the theatre, that they use for community outreach like these classes, business meetings, training sessions, and more.
Kodu Makerspace is the beginning-level camp that teaches the basics of coding. Kids age 8-12 gather in the theatre for four two hour sessions during a week-long camp, and by the end of the week they have built their very own game. Using Surface Pro 4s, they start with a template of a “world” and are able to change that world how they wish – adding trees, bushes, roads, mountains, water, whatever, and coloring them any color of the rainbow. So right away the class is sparking creativity and enabling the kids to build something unique of their very own.
Where the programming comes in is with the characters that inhabit these worlds. The kids can make the characters do things using logical progressions based off of “when-do” instructions. For example, when I press the space bar, the character shoots. The kids can build off that to make it more specific as well. For example, when I hit the space bar, the character shoot twice at something red, and the shot makes it disappear. The details are chosen from a circular list of options that pop up when you click on a character.
“It’s not that in-depth coding,” says Soligon, “But they learn the concepts and they’re able to put together the building blocks and build a game within the Kodu lab.”
So, to the child, it just seems that they are building this world, this game of theirs, and telling the inhabitants what to do. Think deeper, though. What is programming broken down to its base? A series of if-then commands (or when-do commands). If a person clicks on this button on my website, then they should be taken to this page. When a person types these words into the search tab, show them these options. The Microsoft class is teaching kids the logic behind programming so that, when they start programming for real, they have the foundation built.
When the students finish the Kodu Makerspace class, there is a more advanced Learn to Code Flatverse class that they can then sign up for. The Flatverse class builds even further on the computer science foundation.
“The intermediate course is coding with Flatverse, which is using touch-developed Microsoft technology. In this course they learn to read and write code and through the course of the week they build a videogame,” says Soligon. “Our third camp, the advanced series, is around kids in entrepreneurship. As we’ve seen with these camps in the past, kids using coding to build apps and programs see that it could be a real business. So that series is about how you can take that creation, improve upon your product design, pitch it, put together sales materials, and use Office and Powerpoint to start your entrepreneurial business.”
Sitting in on the class, it struck me how important it was for kids to learn these basics. As important as math and English. Computing is going to be a huge part of this generation’s lives and careers. It’s been predicted that most jobs available to these kids haven’t even been invented yet, and that they will undoubtedly center around working with technology. If that’s the case, shouldn’t we be empowering our youngest generation to have the tools to work in the world they will live in one day? It seems like a no brainer, but American schools are slow to pick up this type of curriculum.
If you’d like to have your kid participate in one of the courses, visit the Microsoft website. Parents are more than welcome to sit in.
“Even parents can come in. They sit in on the classes and learn with their kids,” says Jay Salois, Store Leader at the Natick Mall location. “It’s really for everyone.”