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  • coding for kids girl on computerPhoto courtesy of Miriam College

    The trouble with being a geek dad is that you’ll invariably try to influence your children to be more like you, someone with a more-than-fleeting interest in things like Star Trek, video games, DIY toys, self-published comics, building drones, hacking NERF blasters, tweaking gadgets, and constructing Rube Goldberg machines out of Lego. But, that’s not a bad thing. Geek culture has sparked a renewed interest in the subjects of STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, which is something we need to encourage and support if we want our country (and our kids) to be competitive in a future that’s already knocking at our door. 

    While, ultimately, I will let my son decide what he wants to do in life, I’m doing my bit to plant these seeds of influence. His room abounds with science toys, and he already knows who Darth Vader is. But I’m thinking of levelling him up and getting him started on the basics of coding. 

    “Coding” means “programming,” or simply being able to tell a machine what to do. It’s a skill that I personally believe is essential--not just “cool” to have--for our kids (us, even). We’re in the middle of a machine revolution where even coffee machines are connected to the Internet, air-conditioners are controlled by apps, and light bulbs change color when you drag your thumb across your mobile phone. It pays to understand how it all works. 

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    My son is just turning five so a Bachelor’s Degree course in the University of the Philippines is out of the question. But, then again, the principles of coding don’t require you to be fluent in the languages of computer science, at least not yet. Underlying fundamentals can be communicated through the things that interest young boys and girls, namely toys and games. 

    Take Lego, for instance. Popular with both kids and adults, the plastic brick system from Billund, Denmark, is used to teach basic robotics and programming via the Lego Education WeDo concept. The WeDo kit lets children build colorful Lego robots, complete with motors to move parts and sensors that respond to the environment. These are connected to a computer, where students use a simple drag-and-drop programming tool to control the movement and behaviour of their creations. 

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    Photo courtesy of Miriam College

    The Lego WeDo system has been used in Miriam College’s Child Study Center (CSC) summer robotics workshop, which just finished its run last April. Designed for kids of kindergarten age, the five-day course gets them started at practically the same time they start learning how to read. Facilitators provide students with different engaging activities that flexed their creativity while introducing them to basic logic and problem solving. Solo and group projects encouraged kids to work with an end goal in mind.

    “Parents need to know and understand that this is not an ordinary course,” says Jula Arcano of the Miriam College CSC. “In the course, parents learned how inquisitive and creative their kids can be, and better appreciate the talents and skills of their child when it comes to understanding instructions, how they can diligently follow steps and work with the materials.” 

    Though its WeDo program has already ended, Miriam College is offering a second round of robotics workshops, this time using the Sphero system (just like the BB-8 toy), among other STEM workshops.
    Another popular tool to teach coding to youngsters is the Mojang game, Minecraft. This game lets you explore and create in a world of pixelated blocks. Think Lego, but mission oriented and digitized, playable on a PC, tablet, or mobile phone. Kids are already hooked on the game. Why not work within their interests and make it more of a learning experience? 

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    That’s just what groups like iCode Academy are doing. The school offers a three-level Minecraft Modding summer program that lets students create their own Minecraft mods. Offered to kids from 9 to 12, the course gives pupils a taste of coding using programming blocks that you plunk into a workspace in order to control and modify your characters. Level 3 students go beyond the programming blocks to actually code in Javascript. (iCode Academy’s Minecraft Mod course runs this May, along with another course, Adventures in Programming with Scratch. Click here to register.)
    You can find something similar online via the “Hour of Code” courses at Code.org, which likewise uses programming blocks. I’m in the middle of their Minecraft course, and it’s fun yet challenging even for an adult. 

    Also, if you’re the DIY type, you might want to bring home some of these teaching toys. I’ve been drooling over the Piper computer kit, which introduces kids and adults to basic principles of electronics, computer engineering, and programming. Piper lets you build your own DIY computer, using a Raspberry Pi board, complete with lights, sensors wires, the whole caboodle, running Minecraft. It’s a gorgeous piece of tech, something I would have wanted growing up.

    “Everyone should learn how to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.” I didn’t say that; Steve Jobs did. But I’m a firm believer in that statement. At its core, learning to code teaches you to look at a problem, break it down into manageable parts, and logically come up with steps that lead to a solution. That’s a skill that I would very much like my son to have, whether he eventually becomes a doctor, lawyer, painter or engineer. 

    Karlo Nilo B. Samson is a long-time tech editor and member of the Philippine Cyberpress. He is the father of one rambunctious boy with a keen love for LEGO. And ninjas. Don’t forget the ninjas. 

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