Maker Hacker

Code and Legos and Math, Oh My!

How education tools are evolving to create a cohort of citizen-engineers

Education in America is a hot potato these days. There’s the kerfuffle over Common Core standards, too much test-taking, not enough teachers, and wildly divergent ideas about structure, discipline, and outlets for creativity. Not to mention the question of providing fair access to all of the programs, tools, and curriculums out there.

But almost everyone can agree that today’s students need to cultivate a lifelong love of learning while still getting the skills and knowledge they’ll need to thrive in the digital age. Just as baby boomers eagerly learned how to operate, maintain, and navigate automobiles (a not uncomplicated task), and millennials took to the web like mobile ducks to digital water, the post-millennial generation has the potential to become natively literate in the mechanics of code, algorithms, and electronics.

Schools with means are already setting up hackerspaces, make labs, and requiring coding courses. This year, the UK made coding mandatory in all British schools beginning at the youngest levels. Even outside of the classroom, pint-sized engineers are being catered to with toys touting the development of engineering and electronics skills and special coding interfaces created just for kids. Sylvan Learning, the country’s largest tutoring organization, recently launched a new set of programs all about cultivating STEM skills.

Here are just three fascinating facets of the evolving pedagogy of engineering:

Engineering is inherently creative
Kids won’t learn to code just for the sake of it or even because a parent wants them to be the next Bill Gates or Dennis Ritchie. Kids want to make something. It just so happens that engineering proves to be one of the most robust and versatile ways to create anything: bridges, apps, and laser guns included. Far from the stodgy rote exercises of our school days, math, programming, and engineering are now enthusiastically described as artistic and storytelling tools.

Coding can help kids read
Students learn differently. Some may be more visual, others might be hands-on learners. Engineering, math, and coding skills are being taught in a multitude of different ways from using drag-and-drop interfaces to building Lego robots. A student with dyslexia or with a more physically-engaged learning style might first build a sense of mastery with engineering tasks before applying those skills to reading. The simplified coding interfaces for kids often emphasize sequencing and process in a way that can flex reading muscles, too.

Online tools aren’t enough
Social interactions prove to be powerful motivators. An educator working for the kid-oriented programming education company Tynker, recently remarked that the vast majority of students who try to learn to code on their own at home end up dropping out. She said that there’s something about sharing their work and engaging with peers that really gets young people passionate about programming.

Got you hooked? Here’s more:

Extreme Parenting

I Raised My Kids on the Command Line
John Goerzen taught his kids to use computers without the GUI

Code and Writing

Learn to Code, Code to Learn
Coding is as valuable as reading or writing

Dissent

Don’t Teach Your Kids to Write Code
Penelope Trunk on why learning to code isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

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