Maths and computer skills will be key for our children’s future.
Access to STEM education is unequal.
Critical, versatile thinking is essential to overcome challenges – like the pandemic.
Like it is with every new parent, my worldview has been somewhat altered, as I catch myself thinking more these days about children and how we can make our world a better place for them.
Born just weeks before coronavirus turned our lives upside down, my two-month old is still blissfully unaware of the state of things around us all now. And I know I must equip her to take on everything that’ll come her way – the tough with the easy – in the years ahead.
Every parent wants the best for their children. I have always believed that the best we can do for our children is help them become creators and active problem-solvers. This conviction has only grown stronger as we stand rudely shaken, from our collective complacency, by a virus that is challenging us to think and solve so many problems that no one seems to know how.
I wish we could somehow have been better prepared. What learning would that have taken? What skills? It is all about calling upon all these strengths and then finding the rigor of problem-finding and problem-solving, in the moment, to take on a challenge that we have never hurdled before. That is the power our children must have. Computers, programming and robotics provide ideal platforms to enable children to learn through experimentation and play. They provide opportunities for them to reimagine and reconstruct elements of the world around them creatively. This ‘computational thinking’ will eventually flow into all they do, enabling them to solve tough challenges including societal problems. It’ll also solve the problem of the digital haves and have-nots; when computer science is made so foundational the digital divide must eventually dissolve. That’s why we must make every effort to teach our children to code.
In fact, a World Economic Forum paper on Schools of the Future rates technology design and programming as two key skills children will need in the coming years. It elaborates how essential that would be to enable them to develop healthy relationships with technology, understand how to manage digital risk and become more responsible consumers of technology. Yet, so many children have so little access to digital education. In the United States, 45% public schools struggle to offer computer science courses that include any form of programming. Hurdling the challenge of bringing digital education to our children is a big one that can be remedied so much faster with public-private collaboration. Today, so many entities are coming together to do the right thing in so many ways.
There’s Verizon, a US company that’s bringing 5G technology to the classroom, turning lessons into living, breathing, immersive experiences and stoking students’ appreciation for making with technology. Their goal is to deploy it in 100 schools by the end of 2021. It’s not easy to resist the lure of Microsoft’s in-store workshops. The Minecraft Hour of Code, STEM Saturdays, in-store creative workshops, and more are a treat for children and the young at heart. Another example is The New York Academy of Sciences, who are also one of our partners. Through the Global STEM Alliance they are doing a fine job of connecting brilliant young students with one another and with professional role models around the world.
Some others are connecting their work to the bigger picture. Like code.org that believes that a student’s opportunity to learn computer science should not be determined by his or her gender, color of the skin, family income, or the neighborhood they grow up in. But in the United States, the opposite is true when it comes to K-12 computer science. Code.org is working across the spectrum – from making curriculum available for the underserved to influencing policy makers – to remedy the situation.
There’s also the likes of Code with Google, who are tackling the problem by offering new computer science resources for educators. It brings together Google’s free curriculum and programs for building coding skills that teachers can integrate into their classrooms to help students succeed.
I truly believe teachers, when well-equipped to teach computer science, will be the fastest, most intuitive way for us to scale our reach to children. However, teachers in the United States are stretched so thin that making time to learn new skills, especially classroom-style or in a focused workshop proves a challenge for many.
That’s why, in February this year, to exponentially scale the ongoing professional development of K-12 public school teachers, Infosys Foundation USA extended the value of Pathfinders Institute, through its digital avatar Pathfinders Online Institute, so teachers from all over the United States could be empowered with immersive digital training. Today over 14,000 teachers, reaching over 4,700,000 American children, actively participate in this learning and making community. Recently, as thousands of schools across the United States closing due to social distancing norms, Infosys Foundation USA opened its Pathfinders Online Institute to teachers, parents and students giving them access to high-quality computer science education content from home for free in a virtual classroom.
Marwin Minsky, co-founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AI laboratory and a great advocate of computer education for children mentions, in one of his articles on learning, a child’s complaint while struggling to learn maths, “Last year I had to learn the addition table and it was really boring. This year I have to learn another, harder one, and I figure if I learn it then next year there will be another one and there’ll never be any end to this stupid nonsense.” This perception of maths, and later everything else that has anything to do with STEM and technology, as a string of mechanical tasks must be dispelled. As we get our kids to code and play, discover – even create – new virtual worlds and do design thinking for good, maybe we will change the world for my little one and yours. Just a little bit.