We all want the best for our children, for them to reach their fullest potential and contribute in a meaningful way to society. Unfortunately for American students, our classrooms are falling way behind.
For centuries, reading, writing and arithmetic have been the basic requirements for children to function in society, but as manufacturing jobs have either moved overseas or been replaced through automation, literacy in the 21st century will mean something different to the next generation. Children need to develop an understanding of coding from an early age to be competitive in this new job market.
The US labor department has said, by 2020 there will be one million job opportunities in computing and no applicants to fill those slots.
“I have been saying it for 25 years, America doesn’t have job shortages, it has skill shortages. It’s a skill shortage for careers. It’s a skill shortage to keep America the most exciting place in the world where innovation is part of our culture”, said legendary inventor Dean Kamen.
Dean Kamen, 65, holds over 440 patents and is well known for inventing the Segway scooter, Ibot and a portable version of the insulin pump and dialysis machine. But perhaps his greatest creation is FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), Dean’s STEM engagement program for kids worldwide.
It’s an exciting mentor-based program designed to invent inventors by creating a world where science, technology, engineering and math are fun for children.
“If we can create an army of kids that at a very young age, develop the self confidence and the awareness of how exciting and how accessible technology really is compared to bouncing a ball and how meaningful it can be for them and their future and their careers we can change the world,” Kamen said.
LEGO League Jr. is one of the four-robotics competition programs organized by FIRST.
The program introduces kindergarteners to computer programming and problem solving, but also teaches them self-confidence, communication, and leadership skills.
Each year teams of young children are presented with new and exciting challenges to explore real-world scientific concepts from natural disasters to oceanography.
This year the theme is called, “Creature Craze,” and will engage over 55,000 children, ages 6 to 10, from 29 countries.
The goal is to help students understand how innovation and technology have allowed human beings and animals to interact with each other in a constructive, positive way, like the use of a seeing eye dog.
The students study the theme, design an autonomous robot using Lego Elements and develop a “Show Me” poster to illustrate the problem they want to solve.
On January 7, 2017 the students will be judged on how well they present their project at the final expo and how successful they were in programming the robot to complete a number of tasks.
“The kids are literally learning to code using icons. They don’t know how to read yet, but they are learning how to pull operating system commands and control systems out of a library of icons to make a robot do what they want to do. They are learning to program literally at the same time they are learning to read and do basic mathematics,” said Kamen.
Kamen’s aim is to make science and technology an exciting sport for kids so they can have the opportunity to become world leaders, utilizing the power of STEM to innovate and make this planet a better place.
“There aren’t quizzes and tests; just like in football and basketball, there are tournaments and trophies,” he added.
Throughout the season, adult coaches mentor the FIRST teams and provide guidance and inspiration.
Joe Mosley, Stem Coordinator at The Cornerstone School in Ocala, Florida has been mentoring FIRST children for over a decade.
He says the most important thing he teaches kids, is social learning; how to build character, self-direction and the importance of working as a team.
“In the early years any teacher will tell you, most important is learning social skills, how to get along with each other, how to listen to each other, respecting each other’s ideas; teamwork is something you really emphasize because no one can argue better than a group of kindergarteners and first graders,” he said.
“Every kid wants to play with LEGOS and if you can get them involved we are not just going to play with LEGOS we are going to learn something”, Mosley said.
“We make a maze using Lego parts. Then ask how do we make the ball go through the maze? And if they can just do computational thinking: the ball needs to go forward, then it needs to turn to the right, then it needs to turn to the left and go forward. If we can break down those steps, that’s the beginning of learning an automatic programming language,” explained Mosley.
Kamen is not alone in his mission to counter the dangerous innovation shortage facing our nation.
Over 200 colleges and universities, including MIT, Yale and Hofstra have put aside more than $50 million in scholarships earmarked for FIRST students.
And more than 3,700 corporate sponsors including Boeing, SpaceX, NASA, Google and Qualcomm, recruit FIRST alumni after graduation.
In an interview with Fred Wilson, cofounder of Union Square Ventures, one of the top-returning venture capital funds in the world, invested in companies such as Twitter, Etsy and Codecademy he agreed, “Robotics and other hardware oriented project based learning experiences are a good way to get kids excited about technology and what they can make and do with it. Learning to program is a very natural compliment to robotics and the two tend to feed off each other.”
But more importantly he points out, 10 years from now, anyone who wants to get a good job will need the ability to code, not just computer scientists.
“In the future everything will have some sort of code in it, even if you are planning on being a teacher or a musician everything will be captured on a computer,” he said.
"Teaching computer science to kids is not just about good jobs for the citizens and building the talent pool for the tech sector. It is about helping young students develop a new kind of literacy they will need to lead successful lives in the 21st century world we live in," said Wilson.