A tennis ball-sized sphere rolls smoothly on the floor and turns suddenly, as if it has a mind of its own, at a 90-degree angle. It continues on a beeline toward a red sticker on the floor. As I look on at the scene, three boys dressed in identical uniforms lurch forward, their faces alight with anticipation.
The robot crawls to a halt directly in front of its intended destination. It freezes for a moment and then rocks forward like a golf ball on the cusp of the hole. When the ‘bot stops for good on the sticker, the boys jump up and cheer. They’ve done it. They’ve programmed the robot to weave through the obstacle course and land squarely on the sticker.
You may think I was observing students at an MIT summer camp. But, no, this was an ordinary Thai classroom at Wat Laem Fa Pha Primary School in Samut Prakan province, and the students in question were participating in a Kenan Innovation Camp.
Anyone attuned to business news and current events knows that coding and computational thinking are emerging as key skills for the new jobs that will be created over the next decade. With quality jobs like accountants, data clerks, and assembly workers facing extinction, today’s students need to develop their digital capabilities, as well as their STEM and 21st century skills, to make it in our dynamic world.
Unfortunately, the learning that goes on in many Thai schools doesn’t match the realities of the 21st century. Kenan has been addressing this issue for more than a decade by bringing international STEM curricula to Thailand and providing high-impact professional development to teachers nationwide. To keep pace with the changing world, we have added coding and computational skills development to our mix of education programming.
The goal of our work in this area is to build Thai students’ foundational skills and familiarity with computational thinking. We are doing this through two specific methods in both the formal and informal education settings.
Take a look at the sample code in the image to the right. I don’t know about you, but when I look at the text, my head starts spinning. As you can probably guess, text-based coding is pretty intimidating for kids.
At our Innovation Camps, we expose students to programming through block-based code to build their skills and understanding of key principles without the fear factor. When I described the robot moving through the maze at the beginning of the article, that was the output of a program written by the group of boys.
Unlike its scary cousin, block-based coding is fun, engaging, and accessible to all students, even those who have little experience with computers. In our Innovation Camps, students use an application on a tablet to drag and drop blocks with specific directions for the robot to follow. Once the sequence of directions is complete, the students trigger the robot into action. If the ‘bot doesn’t move as it hoped, they use its problem-solving skills to make adjustments to the code. The process is as intuitive as building a castle out of Legos, and yet the results are remarkable.
2) Unplugged Coding: Teaching computer science at the primary school level can be a costly and challenging undertaking, particularly for schools in rural Thailand. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should deny disadvantaged students access to learning these important skills.
In response to the challenges, Kenan, under our Enhanced Project-based Learning (E-PBL) program, trains primary school teachers to use ‘unplugged coding,’ a fun, cost-effective way for students to develop their computational thinking and 21st century skills in the classroom.
Coding doesn’t have to be complicated. At its core, coding is just a set of directions for a computer. You can think of it as a recipe for your favorite meal – you are adding, or sequencing, together a bunch of small ingredients, the totality of which forms something amazing, useful, or tasty.
Through our E-PBL professional development program, teachers learn how to engage their students in interactive, ‘computerless’ coding activities that help them visualize, understand and appreciate the power of coding principles.
For example, at an E-PBL workshop last year, we introduced Mr. Visut Namtor and hundreds of other teachers to a simple game in which students provide directions for a classmate to follow to find a prize hidden in an obstacle-filled room. To complete the task, the students need to develop precise instructions (e.g. take 12 steps forward, turn 45 degrees to your left, etc.) to guide their friend around the chairs and tables obstructing his or her path to the prize.
Both block-based and unplugged coding are powerful tools that enable youngsters to begin thinking like programmers. While they may seem simplistic, it’s worth pointing out that even Harvard starts its computer science students on a block-based language before advancing to text-based languages. In the end, our methods teach students to think computationally, analytically, and creatively so that they will have the opportunity to pursue advanced programming skills without fear.