Teaching tech to the teachers

Kimberly Baars, is a first year teacher at Taupaki School.
Chris Skelton

Kimberly Baars, is a first year teacher at Taupaki School.

The first rule of Zombie Robots Group at Taupaki Primary School is you don't talk about Zombie Robots Group.

Principal Stephen Lethbridge puts a star in his window when new robot kits arrive. The students in the group then have to come up with creative ways of getting out of class to come to his office, where they build and programme robots from scratch.

The group is part of the west Auckland school's investment in teaching computer science.

The children learn to programme computers and build software to solve real-life problems.

"It isn't really about the technology, it is not about coding," Lethbridge says.

"It is about a philosophy of learning, and having kids who problem-find and can then problem-solve."

Many schools are getting pupils to do their schoolwork on digital devices, but precious few are teaching the skills needed to take control of them: computer science and programming.

Teachers and curricula are being exposed as underskilled and unprepared, and schools complain they get little Ministry of Education support to teach programming.

What makes this especially troubling is that the digital technology industry is New Zealand's fastest-growing sector. In the last six years, exports have doubled to more than $7 billion, making it New Zealand's third-largest export earner after dairy and tourism.

But Kiwi IT companies struggle to find local graduates to fill the increasing vacancies and are forced to turn overseas.

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"There is a massive demand for people who can write software, there is a ridiculous shortage," says Professor Tim Bell, deputy head of computer science and software engineering at the University of Canterbury.

In 2011, computer science, programming, web development and digital electronics were given NCEA achievement status. The opportunity to get qualifications and "excellences" in digital technologies started to attract top students. Late last year, Associate Minister of Education Nikki Kaye announced a new $5 million investment to help teachers take "advantage of digital technology to enhance learning in our schools".

But critics of the government's approach to digital learning argue the Ministry of Education is teaching students to use technology, not build it.

"Kids know how to use computers, and teachers know how to use computers," Bell says. "But it is not actually about that. It is about teaching children to build new things."

In a move celebrated by the tech industry, the UK has added computer science to the curriculum from age 5, with some teachers funded by Google and Microsoft to learn new skills.

In New Zealand, schools take it on themselves to teach computer science.

In 2014, a group of 10 and 11-year-old students from Taupaki school won a research award at the First Lego League competition for their work with a Down syndrome student who refused to brush his teeth. They moulded a toothbrush to his hands and built the design on a 3-D printer.

They used coding and robotics, but they also had to create a project that solved a real problem.

"What they are developing is the skills that they are going to need in their jobs and that is team work, interpersonal learning [and] co-operative planning," says Lethbridge.

Kimberly Baars, 31, a first-year design technology teacher at Taupaki was hired straight out of teacher's college, over Twitter, when Lethbridge read her blog chronicling her time as a student teacher. He discovered she could code and had experience with 3-D printing. "Would you like a job?" he tweeted.

Now she teaches children to build computers, programme robots and create websites. She live-tweets her classes, where pupils take on projects such as potato xylophones or building scale replicas of equipment needed to colonise a planet.

"The students are here all day," she says.

"The kids say, 'Miss, can you give me a detention?'. I have to kick them out. The things I get to play with, I am pretty lucky."

Baars debunks the myth that this is a subject area only for lonely male geeks. But the subject still suffers from stereotypes.

"People have this image of people being locked up in a dark room working on a computer all day. The reality is teams of people being creative, working in a really fun environment," says Bell.

Young women are still in short supply in the digital technology industry, but in high demand, according to Bell.

"Because it is about teamwork and communication they will often do better than male graduates. Diversity is important in software development.

"You want a range of skills and views in a team."

Over summer, Auckland's private St Cuthbert's College ran a girls-only residential code camp. Forty-eight Year 9 to 13 students from around the country learnt about building apps and websites, 3-D modelling and printing, robotics programming and game design. For St Cuths pupil Francesca Orchard-Hall, 15, developing computer science skills at code camp is important for her ambition to become a brain surgeon.

"In medicine you are using robots to do surgeries. That might be the future of brain surgery, it might not be hands-on."

At St Cuthbert's the girls are taught the building blocks of coding from the age of five, and programming is now compulsory in years 7 and 8. A programmer has just been recruited to the digital technology staff.

Yet for many teachers, the idea of programming computers rather than just using them can be daunting.

Last month the University of Canterbury held a teacher conference on computer science and programming in high schools, which was partly funded by Google, but not the ministry.

For 70 of the 120 teachers attending it was their first training in computer science.

Few computer science graduates choose teaching as a career.

Frances Valentine, chief executive of digital learning centre Mindlab, says some parents see computer science as a sideline subject, like woodwork, or sewing, and principals fear parents won't understand the new direction of their children's education.

"We need parents to understand that digital is a core competency in every role, no matter who they are," Valentine says.

Reading and writing is still the bedrock of education at Taupaki Primary. But the school wants English, physics, art and music teachers to engage with computer science and integrate technology across their subjects.

"(Since) 1995 when the New Zealand curriculum came out, we have been talking about preparing kids for the 21st century.

"And we are still talking about preparing kids for the 21st century. We just have to be doing it."

 - Stuff

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