Thu | Nov 15, 2018

Having fun with coding

Published:Sunday | January 28, 2018 | 12:00 AMAmitabh Sharma
Yutaro Furuta, Japan International Cooperation Agency volunteer teaches coding to Syesha Olivia Lammie, Grade 4 student of the Boundbrook Primary School, Portland.
Syesha Olivia Lammie points to the game that she created.
Syesha Olivia Lammie, Grade 4 student of the Boundbrook Primary School, Portland, playing a game that she created.
From left: Mikhail Courtley, Kianna Moncrieffe, Asia Anderson, and Syesha Lammie, Grade 4 students of the Boundbrook Primary School, Portland, watch their classmate, Jaiden Ming (sitting) having fun with coding.
Amitabh Sharma
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Coding, like movements in life, is a mix of sequences input of a language, which is compiled as readable data, translated into binary codes and a command created. This can roughly be translated into the signals emitted from the brain to other parts of the body to perform specific functions.

The progression is logical and sequential, and it translates into definitive action and as the abbreviations AI and AR (artificial intelligence and augmented reality) transcend from the realms of science fiction to reality, a working knowledge of coding is fast moving from being an option to being compulsory.

Catching them young is the mantra. But the pertinent question that is asked all the time is: Why coding?

"I need parents to understand why coding is useful and how important it is," said Yutaro Furuta, a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) volunteer working in Portland.

"It is true that not all of them will be programmers in the future," Furuta, who teaches mathematics and who is now encouraging students to learn coding, said. "However, the purpose of programming education is not only raising programmers."

According to him, children, in the process of learning coding, learn to organise ideas, logical thinking, and problem-solving skills.

Coding is not a "geek thing" at the end of the day.

"Educating children on programming can help with their creativity," he said.

Harnessing creativity, according to Furuta, will help to cultivate and harness creative acumen.

"These are the people we need in our society so that we can make Jamaica a great country," he said.

A trained mathematics teacher, Furuta said that students who learn coding can find it easy to navigate through mathematics problems.

"I believe programming education can be a great solution to build problem solving and logical thinking, which are key to mathematics," he said, adding that he sees a lack of these skill sets as a stumbling block for students when it comes to navigating numbers and formulae.

"I have been observing in classes that students are not good at organising their ideas and explaining them to others," Furuta said. "Many students are just memorising how to solve problems without understanding the concept."

Taking a cue from back home, he initiated coding lessons for grades three and four students.

"In Japan," he said. "we regard programming education as a method to develop logical thinking and reasoning, and I am sure this will help students in Jamaica."

 

BUILDING THE FOUNDATION

 

He said that introducing coding at an early stage will help to build the foundation to channel the thinking abilities of the students to work out the processes.

Furuta uses a personal computer and a programming language, 'Scratch', which is user-friendly.

"Normally, you have to remember text commands and strict rules to write when learning coding," he said. "When we use Scratch, all commands on the screen can be dragged and dropped to fit like a jigsaw puzzle."

Children can learn the concepts of programming without it being a chore. Furuta shared that there is a version of Scratch for five- to seven-year-olds, too.

"The students are excited to create games and animations," he said. "They are surprised by the fact they can create these games and animations by themselves."

In addition, after the students complete making games or animations, they can publish them on the Internet.

"They think they are playing, but actually, they are learning."

He is currently teaching a grade three student to make apps, and she loves it.

Learning coding, Furuta said, is not only for programming, but also for understanding the concepts in other subjects and for helping to navigate jobs in the future.

He is encouraging other students to try their hand at coding.

Furuta, though, added, that based on his experiences working in Portland, there are constraints that need to be looked into. The schools may not have enough computers, and there are not many teachers who can teach coding.

These, he said, need to be addressed to make learning coding effective and to have more far-reaching effects.

Critically, students and their parents need to become interested in coding.

"I usually have parents asking me, 'Why does my child need to learn coding? They are not going to become programmers'," Furuta said.

He believes that adults sometimes tend not to accept interventions like coding as they are not a "part of the core studies"; and it is something "they did not learn in the classroom".

But everyone needs to understand, broaden his horizons, and keep abreast of trends that are shaping the world. Parents sometimes think that with coding, their children are playing games and wasting their time.

"That is absolutely wrong," Furuta said. "I would even like to demonstrate and let the parents try their hand at coding so they can understand the difference between programming and playing games."

He added that he wants to address some myths and dispel some doubts about using digital media in education.

"I want to show them how important and how easy it is," Furuta said, adding that in Japan, programming is getting very popular, and from 2020, it is going to be made compulsory at the primary-school level.

Co-existing and competing with machines is a reality from self-driving cars to robots, which are out to take over jobs in the coming decades.

"AI is probably the most important thing humanity has ever worked on. I think of it as something more profound than electricity or fire," Google CEO Sundar Pichai recently said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The heat is on!

amitabh.sharma@hotmail.com