Emerging Tech investigate

Six ways to make IT exciting again

Boring classes mean the next generation isn't interested in IT: here's how to switch them back on to tech

Students have lost interest in learning about IT – largely thanks to an education system that has been teaching office skills to children and calling it computing.

But with England’s IT curriculum facing the chop, it will soon be up to teachers to decide how to make computers interesting - so here’s how to show students (and grown-ups) that (computing is fun) = true.

Make programming easy

Sitting down and learning the programming vernacular, the nuances of variables, methods and objects, can be daunting.

But there are a plenty of ways to learn programming that are gentle on beginners, such as tools that allow users to create programs by using drag and drop or tile-based interfaces. Examples include MIT’s Scratch, Microsoft’s Kodu, Alice and Gamemaker.

These provide a simple way for tech amateurs to learn about behaviours like changing variables and creating branching programs without having to get their hands dirty with code.

For anyone wanting to get a bit closer to programming languages themselves there are sites like Codeacademy, which teaches users Javascript via a series of interactive tutorials, starting with the basics and explaining each step.

While tools such as Greenfoot provide a programming environment that helps novices get to grips with Java and object-oriented programming using a simple GUI.

If none of these tools hit the spot then there’s forthcoming Raspberry Pi, a $25 Linux computer created with the ambition of making it easy to learn coding, which can be set up to boot straight into programming environments for a variety of languages, such as Python or C.

Computing at School, a group dedicated to promoting good IT teaching, also provides links to many other useful free resources on computing.

Break out the robots

If coding simple games doesn’t kindle the kids’ interest then how about having a robot at their beck and call. The Lego Mindstorm platform allows kids to build robots allows and learn both about electromechanics – how to use servos, motors, sensors and the like to create a moving robot, and also how to control them using a relatively simple programming interface.

Alternatively there’s the Arduino, an open source platform that allow users to build their own DIY electronics. Arduinos are essentially small, cheap, programmable microcomputers that can be combined with input and output devices like sensors, LEDs and microphones and controlled via a custom, easy to use programming language. Arduino users have used the platform to create everything from a kettle that only boils when it isn't watched to a motion-sensing teddy bear.

If you just want to tap into the ‘wow’ factor why not let kids tinker with the SDK for the Microsoft Kinect, the vision and speech recognition system for the Xbox 360 and PC. Hobbyists have already taught Kinect to recognise real-life objects and speak their names and to create a 3D scan of a room.

Delve into computing’s past

If you want someone to learn the principles of how a modern computer works then show them the very first room-sized number crunchers. Crack open a computer case today and the chips and circuitry offer little clue to what makes computers’ tick, but in the days of the first electromechanical and electronic computers the inner-workings of information processing were writ large in the punched cards and red hot valves.

Take kids to the likes of the National Museum of Computing to see the Colossus, the valve-based machine that helped crack Hitler's Lorenz code in WWII. Show them how punched cards were used to program the Jacquard Loom or to rapidly count data in the Hollerith Tabulating Machine, and help them understand the evolutionary link between the iPhone and the 1940s electromechanical computer, the Z3. What better way to teach them about the building blocks of computing that today have vanished from view.

Get cracking with codes

Cracking codes may seem to be a far cry from coding, but writing algorithms to carry out pattern recognition and extract relevant information from data are key skills when both breaking ciphers and programming. Not to mention that cracking codes is fun.

The UK intelligence agency GCHQ certainly sees the link, recently running a code-breaking challenge campaign to find cyber security specialists that required entrants to use methods including obfuscation mechanisms and reverse engineering of malicious binary code. Obviously a classroom codebreaking session would be significantly less challenging, but would still provide a useful and rewarding way for kids to learn skills relevant to computing.

Game the system

If universities want more teenagers to study computer science courses then why not enlist the help of the video games industry. Colleges should work with major games publishers to create scholarships, extended work placements and professional mentoring for computer science undergraduates. Providing a clear career path from studying computer science into the video games industry would encourage more teenagers to choose to pursue a career in computing, and could also reduce numbers of computer science graduates who choose to work outside of IT after leaving university.

Explode the jobless myth

The prevailing wisdom is that tech graduates will struggle to get a job, and that’s something that needs to be addressed. There’s a lot of misleading information out there - figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa), appear to show that “Computer Science” graduates face the highest unemployment rates of any university leaver in the UK. However the employment rates for computer science graduates are higher than the Hesa stats suggest, as those figures include rates for graduates of non-degree level applied and vocational IT courses, where competition for jobs is much higher.

And other reports show demand for IT skills in the UK is strong: the e-skills UK Technology Insights 2011 report found that “employment in the IT industry is predicted to grow at nearly five times the UK average”. Teachers and careers advisors should get the message across to kids that a career in IT offers good employment prospects, decent pay and the chance to work at companies making games and apps, and developing the computing technologies that will shape our future.

Can you think of more ways to make IT – and careers in IT – more attractive to the next generation of workers? Let us know your thoughts.

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

35 comments
fishystory
fishystory

I can still remember when I was 12 years old and my computer teacher demonstrated how to create our very first web page in Notepad, by using HTML. That's when I knew I wanted to be a future IT employee after I left school. Adding text, images, sound and video and changing colours, image size and much more were all very exciting to me. Programming, on the other hand, didn't interest me, particularly since coding was done in Microsoft BASIC. Even Logo didn't excite me very much, until I was able to use LEGO Logo (now LEGO Mindstorms) to create simple robots when I was 15 years old. Graphics, video/animation, sound, HCI and AI/robotics is what gets most children interested in IT. Not wordprocessing, not spreadsheets, not networking, not (heavy) coding and not databases.

jkameleon
jkameleon

> Can you think of more ways to make IT ??? and careers in IT ??? more attractive to the next generation of workers? Let us know your thoughts. How about inspiring music and a Dear Leader? This folks looks pretty attracted: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_AZnlyKXGPM Last year's winners of the world's "Who's gonna work for less" championship.

Marc Jellinek
Marc Jellinek

You cannot expect the schools to make IT exciting. The schools are struggling to teach basic skills. To ask them to become a marketing engine for an industry they know nothing about; using programming paradigms they don't understand (imaging Ms. Crabtree trying to explain encapsulation and poloymorphism to the Lil Rascals) would be a miserable failure. The training schools do a pretty good job of it. Look at DeVry's advertising. It's not about the work, its about having a job they enjoy and the money to do what they want. This is similar to the attraction for people living in rising economies to get into IT: employment and money. Someone from a rising economy can come to the US, Canada or Western Europe and make enough to send home enough money to care for their families. That's attractive. I got into IT because, let's face it, I'm a nerd. I love this stuff. But I dug my first computer out of a dumpster, learned to program by typing in code from 2600 Magazine and learning from dialup BBSs and FidoNet (oops, dating myself). Most of the "best" people I've worked with are almost entirely self-taught with supplimentary education from vendor training. While I did study Computer Science in college, college was a long time ago and the technology they taught was out of date at the time I was learning it. If the schools are going to do anything, they need to get out of the way. Instead of mainstreaming everyone into a single curriculum, they need to provide programs that meet the needs of the individual student and provide exploration opportunities. Not likely to happen.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Dean Kamen founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) to inspoire young people to participate and learn about science and technology. FIRST offers robotics competitions for students as young as 6 years old, using the Lego Mindstorms® platform. http://www.usfirst.org You might not only get your kids interested, you might find yourself helping out...

nonimportantname
nonimportantname

A few months back, I realized that I'd really come into my own where programming is concerned and that got me to thinking about robots--a prospect that, for me, would have been unfathomable 2 years ago. I have a 7 year old son who is extremely inquisitive and finds interest in the darnedest things...so I'm probably going to kindle his interest in tech+science with the Lego kits that I've read about and that were mentioned here. Any of these institutions that say Tech Ed is dead is not thinking far enough outside the box.

1ndy
1ndy

I told my kids to stay away from IT. Here in the states, most of the work is done overseas in India. As an IT consultant for over 20 years, its been quite a struggle. Large companies won't even look at IT consulting firms unless they provide "global" resources.

kflippin
kflippin

I just turned 50 and am still getting job offers for IT. I am not done yet. Most intelligent HR and IT people realize the value in maturity, knowledge, experience and morals.

scoffeyjr
scoffeyjr

"jkameleon" is correct. I am over 50 and applied for a job with a new company in Pittsburgh. I researched the company and discovered that the entire staff, including the owner, were under the age of 30. Despite my qualifications, no phone call. Even the government will not hire anyone over the age of 40.

toadforce
toadforce

My children never found ICT interesting in the classroom but they use computers all the time. I could never understand why schools don't teach some level of programming/coding - see some code you have written perform even a small task can really get you hooked, so why do schools fight shy of it?

gmichaels
gmichaels

Running a Google search for Codeacademy brought up "codecademy" as the top 8 out of 10 results! "Codeacademy" is codeacademy.org, but "codecademy" is codecademy.com. It would have been a good idea to have a link on this name to eliminate the confusion.

paul.froehle
paul.froehle

Link to National Computing Center doesn't work

SiO2
SiO2

Teaching kids about computers that learn from us is a bit of a pointless exercise. We should look at how best to integrate IT into our lives instead of setting up a new generation of consumers, which is what its really all about. My daughter is now 14, and I'm disgusted at what the school is teaching: Her last piece of homework was to Google various keywords and obtain images mostly of various textiles, the point of which I was assured was so that the children could identify various patterns in cloth... (Really useful to be able to spot Burberry from 10 paces these days.) All the IT lessons include a section on Social Networking, designed one supposes to teach children how to stay safe on the public networks. Its a good idea, but wouldnt it be better to spend the money on fixing the network to make it safe, rather than educate about its dangers? My daughter was given a laptop and a years Internet by the government, its purpose was for research at home, and for work in school. It was loaded up with Visual Basic, Visual C#, MS Office and a whole bunch of other tools that she has never touched or even needed - in fact, the system worked so poorly that in the end she wiped it and put Linux on there. Now she can access the schools WIFI (We live close enough), get into her account and do work that Windows never allowed her to - the schools systems nearly all run XP with a few Macs, and Win7 just would not network to it properly. That is of course the schools fault for not setting up their network properly, and not Win7, but it means that the hundreds of laptops distributed by the government for this area were utterly useless and a waste of money - because the generation thats supposed to teach the recipients their skills have no skills to teach them, and their equipment is obsolete as well. Its woeful, thats what it is.

jkameleon
jkameleon

http://www.economicpopulist.org/content/great-worker-shortage-lie-alive-and-well That's the real reason why so much money and effort is spent on making IT exciting: http://www.euractiv.com/infosociety/high-ICT-salaries-hamper-eu-digital-market-news-493719 ICT salaries 'hamper EU digital market' . . . If the EU does not solve the e-skills gap, fewer engineers on the market will likely keep salaries high and slow down the digital development in Europe and prevent small and medium size companies to compete in the global economy, said the head of cabinet for EU Information Society Commissioner Neelie Kroes yesterday (4 May). "If ICT practitioners are not available or are available but at too high a cost due to market factors, this will make more difficult the uptake of the ICT sector," Anthony Whelan, head of Kroes' cabinet, told an audience of experts at a conference organised yesterday by DigitalEurope, one of the biggest industry lobbies.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

Seems to end around age 35. So we had better be teaching our children about second careers as well.

kitekrazy
kitekrazy

Great comments Marc. The cookie cutter approach doesn't work. It's all about self motivation. It know very little about the IT field but reading comments from those who are in the real world of this field doesn't make it sound glamorous.

HypnoToad72
HypnoToad72

How much of a wage hit did you take? Or, rather, how much did you allow yourself to be cheapened by?

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

suggests you are in the minority. You know something has gone awry when the title of "senior" is applied to 29 year olds...

HypnoToad72
HypnoToad72

Private colleges are skimpy on assignments at times too, but if public K-12 assignments are THAT weak...

davep.l
davep.l

I worked as the Network Manager in a very large High School (1900 students plus teaching and admin staff) and all the kids were interested in was trying to access facbook and the like. Only a handful were interested in learning about IT and it's useful application in society. A couple were handy hackers but we quickly trapped them and put them to work on something useful, whitehatting for us (and we paid them for it as well!!). The systems when I started in 2004 were NT4 servers and 98 clients for gods sake. It took up a lot of time and finance to upgrade to the point where we doubled the number of pc's and laptops, upgraded to XP and server 2003 and had a lot of really useful apps, targeted at the relevent departments, something I had to fight to get the staff to recognise. I left because the budget was being cut and I didn't think I could do a good enough job on the funding available. I spoke to the guy in charge a couple of months ago and there hasn't been a n upgrade since I left nearly 4 years ago!!

HypnoToad72
HypnoToad72

Why work for peanuts? We're developed nations that purportedly abhor slavery.

HypnoToad72
HypnoToad72

Walmart, McDonalds, Chickfila, etc...

gmichaels
gmichaels

I started my career in IT at 34, in 1986 and had a pretty good run until recently, thanks to ageism and outsourcing.

Marc Jellinek
Marc Jellinek

How's this for glamour: I've met two US Presidents (Bush, Clinton), William F. Buckley Jr, Bill Gates, Hank Aaron, Yogi Berra, Bob Costas, Howard Reynolds and Mitch Williams. Larry Ellison called me a bad name (quite the kudos, considering I was working for Microsoft at the time and just beat out Oracle for a deal at one of their marquee accounts). I've spoken at industry events. I've helped companies save tens of millions of dollars. I've worked in London, Amsterdam, and various locations within the United States. I paid cash for my daughters education and feel like my retirement is fairly secure any time I'd like to exercise the option. I have the cash on hand to help out friends and family. Its hard work, with long hours and challenging situations. There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. The industry isn't for everyone. But if you are into solving problems and constantly learning, there are few better industries to be in.

Professor8
Professor8

It suggests s/he's hit upon a niche, and used personal networking well, and/or has flexible ethics as to what sorts of work s/he will do. But, yah, I've never seen an ad that says "required 30 years of experience" (though there have been a few that say "requires 5-7 years of experience with" something that's only been around for 2 years).

jkameleon
jkameleon

Otherwise, why would anyone bother with making IT exiciting again?

HypnoToad72
HypnoToad72

other people say we need more talent here, how we don't have talent here, encouraging people to go to higher education... I hope people aren't being fleeced... they deserve a refund if they have been.

HypnoToad72
HypnoToad72

What a world we live in... Still, at least those who aren't born yet are considered "indispensable life".

davep.l
davep.l

Just kepp on trying and there's stuff out there. Just got another job at the ripe old age of 49. Guess experience counts for something!!

RudHud
RudHud

The op on the 2005 thread you cite bloviates about the True Nature of IT -- but breaks his text with unnecessary line feeds. Some expert. The comments, not the op, are the interesting part.

HypnoToad72
HypnoToad72

Otherwise, everyone 35 or older wouldn't be suffering right now.

jkameleon
jkameleon

Don't mention your age/date of birth on your resume lest it will disappear into the black hole. Also, do not admit any experience you might had with PDP, VAX, Motorola 68xxx and the like. If you omit the said information, you'll at least get occasional "thanks but no thanks".