IN THE UAE

With the world be­com­ing in­creas­ingly dig­i­tal, com­puter sci­ence and cod­ing are fast be­com­ing skills that could be cru­cial in the near fu­ture. Anand Raj OK ex­plores the world of cod­ing in the UAE and how kids are log­ging in to get ahead

Friday - - Contents - PHO­TOS BY AIZA CASTILLO DOMINGO AND ANAS THACHARAPADIKKAL

Kids are learn­ing how to code even be­fore they know their nurs­ery rhymes. So what is this new lan­guage of the fu­ture? Fri­day finds out.

Jonas leans for­ward in his re­volv­ing chair and watches his com­puter screen on which a lit­tle red and green car­toon boy is mer­rily stomp­ing down a road. When­ever the car­toon char­ac­ter en­coun­ters a boul­der or a log of wood on the road, Jonas laughs out loud. He knows that to help the boy leap over the hur­dle, he has to click his mouse on a red block on the screen and drag and drop the block on to a pal­ette that is open at the bot­tom of his com­puter screen.

‘I’ve done it,’ he tells his teacher Far­iha Khan, smil­ing when the car­toon char­ac­ter leaps over the hur­dle. Then, hold­ing on to the ta­ble, he hops down from his chair and takes a sip from his smart black wa­ter bot­tle.

Jonas (pic­tured, left) is just four years old, and his feet barely reach the floor when he is seated. But that has not di­min­ished his en­thu­si­asm to learn about com­put­ers and cod­ing. The youngest stu­dent at The Cod­ing Cir­cle, an ed­u­ca­tional start-up launched two years ago in Down­town Dubai, the lit­tle boy is one of around 20 en­thu­si­as­tic kids busy learn­ing the ba­sics of cod­ing.

For those who came in late, cod­ing, at its most ba­sic state, is a set of in­struc­tions that tells a com­puter what it needs to do.

Ev­ery time you send a text mes­sage, play a video game, or book a movie ticket us­ing an app, you are able to do so be­cause some­one wrote the code that com­manded the com­puter or your phone to do the task.

But why is cod­ing and com­puter sci­ence be­com­ing so pop­u­lar that coun­tries from Singapore to Cyprus and Eng­land to Es­to­nia are in­clud­ing it as part of the public school cur­ricu­lum?

‘Be­cause,’ says Bruno Scheep­ers, di­rec­tor of op­er­a­tions at The Cod­ing Cir­cle and a teacher of cod­ing, ‘tech­nol­ogy is in­te­gral to ev­ery as­pect of our lives to­day. It em­pow­ers you to do many things in­clud­ing cre­at­ing your own web­sites and apps, tak­ing up a ca­reer in cod­ing, or even start­ing a tech busi­ness in the fu­ture.’ But kids as young as four? ‘See, we live in a dig­i­tal world where soft­ware and com­put­ers are part of our ev­ery­day life. From the phone you use that is loaded with apps to the vir­tual games you play to shop­ping and gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion on­line, ev­ery­thing uses com­put­ers. Know­ing the lan­guage of com­put­ers is go­ing to be cru­cial in the fu­ture;

some­thing as im­por­tant as learn­ing his­tory, sciences or lan­guages,’ he says.

Bruno is not the only one in favour of cod­ing.

Some 20 years ago, Steve Jobs had said: ‘Ev­ery­one should learn how to pro­gramme a com­puter be­cause it teaches you how to think.’

Ear­lier this year, Face­book’s Mark Zucker­berg said, ‘In 15 years, [stu­dents will be taught] pro­gram­ming just like read­ing and writ­ing … and [we’ll be] won­der­ing why we didn’t do it sooner.’

Susan Wo­j­ci­cki, CEO of Youtube, too logged her opin­ion in favour of cod­ing. ‘From phones to cars to medicine, tech­nol­ogy touches ev­ery part of our lives. If you can cre­ate tech­nol­ogy you can change the world,’ she said. Still not con­vinced? Two years ago, a Euro­pean Com­mis­sion re­port urged peo­ple to learn cod­ing, warn­ing that a lack of ba­sic cod­ing skills could re­sult in Europe fac­ing a short­age of up to 900,000 ICT pro­fes­sion­als by 2020 – that’s just three years away. The Com­mis­sion be­moaned the fact that although more than 90 per cent of pro­fes­sional oc­cu­pa­tions re­quire some in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy com­pe­tence, the num­ber of grad­u­ates in com­puter sci­ence is not keep­ing pace with this de­mand for skills.

Ex­perts say com­pu­ta­tional think­ing teaches chil­dren how to ap­proach a prob­lem by break­ing it down into smaller, more man­age­able is­sues, think­ing them through LOG­I­CALLY and thereby solv­ing the prob­lem

Closer to home, Mo­ham­mad Mourad, re­gional di­rec­tor for Google Mena, can’t un­der­score the im­por­tance of cod­ing enough. ‘Cod­ing skills and com­puter sci­ence are a gate­way to in­no­va­tion in nu­mer­ous fields from ar­chi­tec­ture to zo­ol­ogy, medicine to the music in­dus­try,’ he said. ‘Com­puter pro­gram­ming has be­come a realm for creativity and in­no­va­tive ideas.’

The statis­tics are startling enough to make you sign up for a course in HTML or C++ asap. Ac­cord­ing to a 2016 World Eco­nomic Fo­rum re­port, 65 per cent of chil­dren en­ter­ing pri­mary school to­day will end up work­ing in jobs that do not ex­ist as yet; which means stu­dents need to be pre­pared for it.

A mas­sive 71 per cent of all new jobs in sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, engi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics (STEM) are in com­put­ing. That’s not all. Two years ago, there were 500,000, yes, that num­ber is right, new com­put­ing jobs avail­able in the US alone, but only 40,000 qual­i­fied grad­u­ates to fill them. It was per­haps with that in mind that Ac­cen­ture, a dig­i­tal me­dia and tech­nol­ogy com­pany, teamed up with the Aus­tralian School in Abu Dhabi in De­cem­ber and set up a cod­ing ses­sion for grade 10 stu­dents. The event, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Code.org, a non-profit whose mis­sion is to ex­pand ac­cess to com­puter sci­ence and in­crease par­tic­i­pa­tion by women, was or­gan­ised to sup­port Hour of Code, a global move­ment reach­ing tens of mil­lions of stu­dents in over 180 coun­tries across the world.

Apart from Ac­cen­ture, sev­eral ma­jor tech com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Ap­ple clicked yes to sup­port the ini­tia­tive in the UAE. Ap­ple stores in the coun­try cel­e­brated the Hour of Code with free work­shops in­tro­duc­ing cod­ing to kids and peo­ple of all ages. Tech gi­ants such as Mi­crosoft, Amazon and Google, not to men­tion more than 400 other tech­nol­ogy and ed­u­ca­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions, all en­cour­age their com­puter en­gi­neers to vol­un­teer at schools in their com­mu­ni­ties to help stu­dents learn the ba­sics of cod­ing.

Hadi Par­tovi, CEO of Code.org, could not have been hap­pier. Thanks to his ini­tia­tive, since 2013, over 100 mil­lion stu­dents have ben­e­fited from at least one hour of cod­ing.

‘Learn­ing com­puter sci­ence is just as foun­da­tional as learn­ing bi­ol­ogy or chem­istry,’ Hadi said. ‘Learn­ing what an al­go­rithm is and how data is en­crypted on the in­ter­net is just as im­por­tant as learn­ing how pho­to­syn­the­sis works.’ Omar Bou­los agrees. ‘Cod­ing has touched ev­ery as­pect of to­day’s world,’ says Omar, Ac­cen­ture’s

re­gional managing di­rec­tor for the Mid­dle East and North Africa.

‘Dur­ing our school visit in Abu Dhabi, we met some very pas­sion­ate stu­dents who were ea­ger to learn code.’ He hoped other schools too would adopt ‘such in­no­va­tive ideas that in­spire cre­ative learn­ing and elicit in­ter­est in com­puter sci­ence.’

For the stu­dents at the Aus­tralian School, though, the cod­ing event was an op­por­tu­nity to put their tech skills to the test. An­thony Wethereld, prin­ci­pal of the school and a for­mer com­puter en­gi­neer who him­self dab­bled in pro­gram­ming, is con­vinced that the study and prac­tice of cod­ing results in ‘tan­gi­ble pos­i­tive out­comes, and en­hances the way stu­dents think and per­se­vere through a task to reach a suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion’.

The im­por­tance of cod­ing was not lost on the Abu Dhabi Ed­u­ca­tion Coun­cil (Adec), ei­ther; it launched an ini­tia­tive called Com­puter Sci­ence First in Novem­ber 2015. The mis­sion: to teach around 250,000 school stu­dents in the cap­i­tal the ba­sics of com­puter cod­ing in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Google over the course of two years. Dr Na­jla Al Naqbi, in­no­va­tion and e-Learn­ing pro­gramme man­ager at Adec, was all praise for the pro­gramme. Teach­ing cod­ing to chil­dren at a young age can help change their at­ti­tudes, she told Gulf News at the launch of the ini­tia­tive.

‘Chil­dren can im­prove their rea­son­ing skills. They can de­ter­mine the con­se­quences of their ac­tions and their pos­si­ble out­comes... Cod­ing has im­proved the stu­dents’ abil­ity to solve prob­lems and work in teams,’ she said.

Stu­dents were taught pro­gram­ming us­ing ‘Scratch’, a stu­dent-friendly pro­gram­ming lan­guage de­vel­oped by the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy.

Cod­ing is given im­mense im­por­tance at Dubai’s GEMS Mod­ern Academy too. ‘Cod­ing starts at el­e­men­tary level with no de­vice ap­proach in Kin­der­garten where they use block cod­ing and Cu­betto,’ says Ritesh Dhanak, su­per­vi­sor, dig­i­tal learn­ing. ‘Be­gin­ning with Logo and Scratch, stu­dents soon move on to Mi­crosoft Small Ba­sic, fol­lowed by Vis­ual Ba­sic while se­nior school stu­dents fo­cuses on Vis­ual Ba­sic – ad­vanced and Java.

‘Through these var­i­ous stages, stu­dents de­velop log­i­cal rea­son­ing, crit­i­cal think­ing and prob­lem solv­ing skills.’

This apart, the stu­dents from Grades 3-12 are en­cour­aged to at­tend ex­tended ac­tiv­i­ties such as Hour of Code, Hop­scotch and App de­vel­op­ment com­pe­ti­tions.

‘Cod­ing is an es­sen­tial skill that present and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions need,’ says Ritesh.

Scratch ap­pears to be the go-to pro­gramme for get­ting kids in­ter­ested in cod­ing.

‘It is pop­u­lar to teach kids the ba­sics,’ says Far­iha of The Cod­ing Cir­cle.

‘Un­til the age of seven, we teach kids the very ba­sic con­cepts of com­put­ers – how to power it on and turn it off, set a pass­word… es­sen­tially be re­spon­si­ble for their ma­chines.’

The ba­sic games and lessons don’t use letters or words be­cause these kids are only just learn­ing to read and write.

‘The seven- to 10-year-olds are in­tro­duced to Scratch which does not in­volve writ­ing code but in­stead uses blocks of code,’ she says.

Each piece of code is a block that needs to be dragged and dropped in a par­tic­u­lar se­quence to cre­ate a pro­gramme. ‘You need to choose the blocks care­fully and ar­range them in a par­tic­u­lar se­quence for the com­puter to read and act on it,’ says the soft­ware teacher. A course in cod­ing teaches chil­dren how to think se­quen­tially and log­i­cally, and make games, apps and web pages but clearly there is a lot more at play here.

Omar Fa­rooqui, managing part­ner of The Cod­ing Cir­cle, says, ‘com­pu­ta­tional think­ing, which is ac­tu­ally a com­bi­na­tion of al­go­rithms, maths and logic, teaches chil­dren to view the world in a new way, a log­i­cal way. Our ap­proach to teach­ing cod­ing is recog­nised in­ter­na­tion­ally by our af­fil­i­ate part­ners Google, Cisco, Face­book and Uber.’

To raise aware­ness about the ben­e­fits of cod­ing The Cod­ing Cir­cle plans to or­gan­ise a se­ries of public lec­tures next month. ‘We also plan to dis­trib­ute tablets to chil­dren free of cost to en­cour­age them to learn cod­ing,’ says Omar.

Ex­perts say com­pu­ta­tional think­ing teaches chil­dren – and adults – how to ap­proach a prob­lem by break­ing it down into smaller, more eas­ily man­age­able is­sues, think­ing them through log­i­cally be­fore ar­riv­ing at a so­lu­tion that solves the smaller prob­lems and thereby the larger prob­lem.

These skills can be used in not just the fields of sci­ence but also in the world of busi­ness, where mar­kets of­ten fol­low rules that can be bet­ter un­der­stood us­ing com­pu­ta­tional anal­y­sis, says Omar.

Far­iha be­lieves cod­ing goes a step fur­ther. She views it as a lan­guage that can also get chil­dren to work as team and push the bound­aries of tech­nol­ogy and imag­i­na­tion.

‘I’ve seen it hap­pen,’ she says. ‘Last year, our team par­tic­i­pated in a hackathon in Dubai. The mis­sion was to cre­ate apps with the theme ‘Smart city for women’.’

The Cod­ing Cir­cle team, made up of three girls aged eight, nine and 10, and Far­iha, who was the team coach, came up with an idea to solve a prob­lem moth­ers some­times faced dur­ing the school run – get­ting caught up with a chore and un­able to pick up or drop their kid to school.

‘We cre­ated a kind of car­pool­ing app for moms,’ says Far­iha. ‘A mother who signs up to the app can see other mums in her lo­cal­ity who have a child that’s go­ing to the same school her child is at­tend­ing. The app has a cal­en­dar where mums can feed in the dates and tim­ings when they were avail­able for pick ups and drops. This way all the mums who are signed up know who is go­ing to be pick­ing up the kids on a par­tic­u­lar day.’

The judges at the hackathon, says Far­iha, were im­pressed by the app, which they felt was use­ful for the en­vi­ron­ment – that is, hav­ing fewer cars on the road – and good for the com­mu­nity: more mums were stress-free. ‘For the girls, build­ing the

app was a les­son in not just putting their cod­ing skills to use, but also about work­ing as a team, hon­ing lead­er­ship and pre­sen­ta­tion skills and stick­ing to dead­lines,’ she says

Although many ex­perts are in favour of teach­ing cod­ing to chil­dren, re­li­able re­search that proves com­put­ing can help you be­come more cre­ative or in­crease your abil­ity to prob­lem-solve is pretty thin. In an in­ter­view with the New York Times, Mark Guz­dial, a pro­fes­sor in the School of In­ter­ac­tive Com­put­ing at Ge­or­gia Tech who stud­ies com­put­ing in ed­u­ca­tion, said it won’t make you bet­ter at some­thing un­less that some­thing is ex­plic­itly taught.

In decades of re­search no one has found that skills au­to­mat­i­cally trans­fer, although, for the same rea­sons you learn chem­istry or physics, ‘it makes a lot of sense to un­der­stand com­put­ing in our lives’, he said.

How­ever, Dubai-based Fifi Leine, for one, would vouch for the con­fi­dence cod­ing has given her chil­dren. Her el­der son Elias, eight, started to learn cod­ing as a school co-cur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­ity. ‘He was in­ter­ested in the sub­ject and when he said he wanted to do cod­ing, I de­cided to en­rol him for a course,’ says Fifi. The young boy, who is pro­fi­cient in HTML, has al­ready done about 300 lines of cod­ing. ‘He feels em­pow­ered, a lot more re­spon­si­ble… I think cod­ing is great for mul­ti­skills de­vel­op­ment,’ she says.

Her younger son Jonas be­came in­ter­ested in com­put­ers and cod­ing af­ter see­ing his brother Elias work­ing on the PC. ‘I used to bring Jonas along when I was drop­ping off his brother for his classes and Jonas used to be quite keen to hang around here. So when I learnt The Cod­ing Cir­cle were of­fer­ing a short course for four- to six-year-olds I en­rolled him. He’s al­ready learnt so much for his age – he can click and drag and drop and knows how to power up and switch off the ma­chine… He truly en­joys be­ing here and play­ing around on the com­put­ers learn­ing the ba­sics of cod­ing.’

An­other par­ent Mar­wan She­hab, too, is pleased with the way his eight-year-old son is pro­gress­ing. ‘Remi is quite aca­demic and reads and writes quite well. He’s strong in maths at school so for us this was just an­other ac­tiv­ity to get him in­ter­ested in,’ says Mar­wan.

Remi en­rolled for the first course and see­ing how much he en­joyed it de­cided to con­tinue. ‘We did not force him into this,’ says Mar­wan. ‘We of­fered him the op­por­tu­nity to check it out and he loved it so he’s con­tin­u­ing it.’

Far­iha (above) and Bruno (top right) take chil­dren through the paces at Omar Fa­rooqui’s (top left) The Cod­ing Cir­cle in Dubai

Mar­wan is happy with the way his son Remi is pro­gress­ing. Be­low: Omar Bou­los of Ac­cen­ture over­sees a cod­ing ses­sion in Abu Dhabi

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