IT courses let kids tinker with computers

University of Tokyo

JAPAN - New educational initiatives are using gamelike software, tiny computer terminals and other technologies developed overseas to familiarize children with the basics of computer programming.

With government support for information technology education aimed at children, some private companies have opened extracurricular programming schools to teach kids how to make computers do what they want.

At a course held this summer at the University of Tokyo's Hongo Campus, 20 primary and middle school students stared at computer screens displaying a cartoon cat.

Next to the cat are several bar-shaped blocks labelled with such instructions as "move 10 steps" and "if on edge, bounce." Students can make the cat move by placing the blocks in different arrangements.

Organized by Canvas, a nonprofit group based in Sumida Ward, Tokyo, that offers a variety of courses to promote creativity in children, the three-day intensive seminar used the software Scratch to teach programming concepts.

Scratch was developed by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States and was released in 2007.

Aimed at children ages 8 to 16, Scratch is designed to eliminate the complex strings of symbols and numbers normally used to give computers commands by using simple operations even a beginner can master to teach the basics of programming.

In the seminar, students created a game in which a mouse tried to escape from several cats.

"I use the Internet all the time, but this was my first time using a computer to make something move how I wanted it to. I definitely want to keep doing it at home," said a fourth-grade boy from Yokohama.

Canvas started its programming courses last year. "We want to use a sense of play to allow [children] to get a feel for how computers work," a staff member in charge of the programme said.

Tiny, low-cost computer

On the hardware side, the Raspberry Pi, a low-cost, business card-sized computer, is making contributions to programming education.

Developed in Britain and put on the market in 2012, the tiny terminal has been a global hit, selling 1.75 million units so far. Canvas uses the computer, available in Japan for about ¥3,000, in its courses.

The Raspberry Pi is simply made with an exposed motherboard, but it can be put to a variety of uses just by connecting it to a monitor and keyboard.

The developer, Eben Upton, 35, said the idea came to him while teaching at the University of Cambridge in Britain, after he noticed a steady decline in students declaring a major in computer science.

He wondered if the problem stemmed from a lack of opportunities for children to come into contact with programming.

According to Upton, today's children are accustomed to using devices with a dedicated purpose, such as video game consoles. He thought that if a computer that children could use for programming was priced low enough that parents would not balk at the cost, children would receive natural training.

The government stated in its "Japan Revitalization Strategy" released in June that it would "promote IT education including programming education from the compulsory education stage."

For the past three years, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has used software it developed to teach children about supercomputer technology on an easy-to-understand website it calls "Programin."

The ministry intends to incorporate the results of this and other initiatives when considering how to introduce IT education into compulsory education.

Government support has sparked moves in the business sector. CA Tech Kids Inc., a subsidiary of CyberAgent Inc., based in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, opened a programming juku cram school in Tokyo in late October.

Aimed at primary school students, courses are three months long and held on Saturdays or Sundays. The 20 slots for the Saturday morning class filled up in just a few days.

"Knowledge of programming should help children work smarter and more efficiently in the future," said an official of the company, which plans to open another school in Osaka next year.

"A lot of parents think, 'Studying [programming] would benefit my child in the future.' But programming is a field that only grows when there is curiosity," Kazuhiro Abe, a specialist in computer education and part-time lecturer at Aoyama Gakuin University, said.

"I'd like programs to be developed that put children in touch with the natural appeal [of programming]," he said.

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Programming school "Tech Kids