Wednesday 18 September 2019

Computer sciences are our children's passport to success in the Digital Age

CoderDojo founders James Whelton and Bill Liao
CoderDojo founders James Whelton and Bill Liao

Ronan Harris

Unemployment is currently running at almost 10pc across the EU, and yet it is predicted that there will be as many as 900,000 job vacancies across the union by 2020 - due to a lack of digital skills.

The fact is that there needn't be. Governments, educators and the business community all have a role to play in ensuring that our young people are equipped with the skills they need to be able to fill these jobs and to become active participants in the Digital Age we now live in.

As the parent of a five-year-old and a seven-year-old, I want my children to be able to reap the benefits of the Digital Age. I want them to have the opportunity to be content creators - to be able to design and build the future tools that the world will use - rather than passive consumers of technology.

And I believe this is an ambition that our Government must have for all our young people if we are to create a robust and successful economy, as well as a just society, for future generations.

At the heart of the digital economy is computer science - a discipline with a core set of scientific principles that can be applied to solve complex, real-world problems. In today's computing-imbued world, coding is the 'quill' of the 21st century, and knowledge of computer science is essential, and not just for careers in IT companies.

Every company's success in the digital age increasingly relies on technological innovation in every area. So we need to develop these basic skills for every student as much as we need to inspire the next generation of computer scientists and technology leaders who will help drive a new wave of innovation in Ireland.

Unfortunately, Ireland is behind the curve in this regard. Israel, for example, started a secondary school computer science curriculum as early as 1995 and this is credited with turning that country into a 'startup nation'.

Four years ago, computer science was introduced as a subject in New Zealand high schools, with a similar standing to subjects like physics. Estonia puts great emphasis on programming, with some schools teaching it to pupils as young as six. Last year, the UK followed their example and introduced computer science into the school curriculum for children from age 5-16 years. Here in Ireland, an optional coding short course is available in the Junior Cycle.

The quality of our education system has been a unique selling point for our country. But has Ireland lost its aspiration to ensure our young people are the best educated in the world? Put simply, we need to be 'best in class' in teaching new subjects like computer science, as we were in teaching the three Rs.

In the absence of coding in the formal education system, it's great to see young people 'doing it for themselves'. One of the world's most successful coding initiatives, CoderDojo, was founded in Ireland by a then 19-year-old, James Whelton, and his business partner, Bill Liao. Harry McCann was 14 when he set up his first business Kid Tech, with the aim to 'Teach the Next Generation Tech'. But they shouldn't have to. While decisions on the curriculum are best left to educators and policymakers, at Google we believe that we need to expose children to computer science and coding from an early age, and we would welcome making the subject compulsory in both primary and secondary schools. One of the main reasons is to address the yawning gap in female participation in science and technology. We need to make it something they value and see as a viable option in their career plan. Making computer science a compulsory subject is one way of addressing the diversity issue in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education (STEM) by getting more female students interested in the subject from a young age.

We're also playing our part in supporting digital skills in our young people by collaborating in practical ways with teachers and organisations that help deliver teacher training and computer science education. Teachers are critical in teaching and inspiring our young people, and one of our most important collaborations is with Trinity College. Google has provided funding for the development of a new postgraduate qualification for qualified teachers in 21st century teaching and learning. Our partnership with Trinity also includes targeted efforts to improve computer science and STEM capacity within the DEIS (Delivering Equality Of Opportunity In Schools) strategy.

Other initiatives include Call to Code, a nationwide coding competition for 13-18-year-olds, and we're delighted that Jordan Casey is our student ambassador for the competition. More than 2,000 students have been registered by over 380 teachers for this year's competition, reflecting the growing interest in coding. Earlier this year, Irish software research centre Lero was awarded a grant by Google's RISE programme to support its work in encouraging girls to study computer science.

Next month, applications will open for our CS4HS grant programme - which funds professional development in computer science for teachers - and I'd love to see more Irish schools and universities apply for funding from it. All of these initiatives aim to support computer science growth across Ireland, helping to give our students choices for a 21st century future. Parents, too, can encourage their children's curiosity by taking part in one of the hundreds of Hour of Code events taking place in Ireland next month.

Ronan Harris, Vice President, Google, EMEA and head of Google in Ireland

Irish Independent

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