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Programming and robotics in the classroom, much more than computers and code

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″There is a lot of talk about learning new languages, but we forget the most important of all, the language of the present and the future, which is programming and robotics”, said Pedro Sánchez in the recent Debate on the State of the Nation, just before announcing the Code School 4.0 Program .

This is how he announced that almost six million Infant, Primary and ESO students will begin this September to have contact in the classroom with this content to “develop their digital competence in a general way”.

The plan, with a value of 356 million euros for the next two years, not only contemplates that computational thinking, programming and robotics be introduced in the Teaching Degrees, but also the training of 567,000 teachers between now and 2024 and the creation of the figure of the programming assistant —similar to that of the conversation assistants.

“What we hope it will allow is that the student acquires a new literacy, that approaches the world in which they are living: knowing how a device works and that the digital world that surrounds them is something understandable for them”, assures Julio Albalad, director of the National Institute of Educational Technologies and Teacher Training (INTEF), dependent on the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, the body that will manage the project in collaboration with the communities.

What will it bring to children, beyond the technical

It is not, therefore, about incorporating Maria subjects or creating little computer scientists who know how to write code, but about equipping the little ones with skills that will serve them in many other areas both inside and outside the school walls. As Albalad explains, computational thinking is nothing more than “solving problems and tasks by breaking them down into small problems”: “Once I have broken down a problem into smaller ones, what I do is establish a logical and ordered sequence of different steps for its completion. resolution, which allows me to know where there may be an error and, if there is, to modify it”.

Collaterally, the mathematical and creative thinking of students can be reinforced, but they are not the only ones. Carlos Casado Martinez, professor of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications Studies at the UOC, lists other skills that students would acquire, such as “the ability to abstract and analyze and solve problems, but also creativity, problem decomposition, group work, the organization and treatment of data or the definition of models”

It allows us to present technology not as something magical that works we don’t know how, but as something human in which we can all participate
Carlos Casado Martínez, professor at the UOC

“Programming and robotics, used properly, can be very powerful educational tools and are likely to be used in the classroom both to work on these aspects, and for any content of any of the compulsory subjects,” he stresses.

Casado also celebrates that incorporating programming and robotics into school education brings technology closer to children, but in a different way than they are used to: “We live in a world dependent on technology, but most of us view only from the user point of view. Teaching programming in the school environment makes it possible to present technology not as something magical that works no one knows how, but as something human in which we can all participate”.

How do you teach children who don’t even know how to read?

As Albalad details, the idea is to “start introducing this logic” of computational thinking in Children, but without the need to “have a tablet”. Within the Primary curriculum, this, together with robotics and programming, would be included in Mathematics and in Knowledge of the social and cultural environment and in Secondary, “apart from having a transversal nature, there are specific subjects that deal with these issues”.

But how can programming be taught, for example, to such young children? Amador Canedo, ofAstrobots—in Carballo (A Coruña), a private computing and robotics center for children— sees it every day. “We have children who start with us at the age of four in Babybots and at five they dominate the computer. They don’t know how to write, they don’t know how to read and, in fact, in some of the applications that we use they have command bars and write and they tell you ‘is this the C that has this shape? ”, He says.

They begin by explaining how a computer works: “It’s very curious, the first day it happens to us that the first thing they do is go to the screen with their finger, they think they can handle it from there”. Then they begin to program, the smallest “with programming blocks without letters, but symbols”, such as with “robots that carry arrows above their heads” to which they put code “so that some boards follow”. Also, with programs like ScratchJr: “They draw the dolls with the computer, paint the backgrounds and, with arrows, program them to make a circuit or an animation”.

Another leg is the mechanics, assembling for example Lego robots that can design and then program. “With electronics we start with small crafts, where with batteries we move motors or illuminate LEDs, or we make conductive plasticine figures”, he mentions.

They are studying a lot of things that they would not see until their degree or very high courses and they are doing it when they are 10 or 12 years old. and they are playing
Amateur Canedo from Astrobots

“We gamify everything so that they think they are playing at all times,” emphasizes Canedo, and this while they learn from how a motor works to what happens if the polarity is changed.

“Yesterday, for example, we made a robot and I put the motor directly connected to a wheel. That car was going one speed; if we want more, we have to gear down, start putting in gears big and small. Or we do the same with pulleys”, tells about different concepts that children work on without realizing it. “Today, for example, they were programming a plate so that, when you put it in your hand, depending on which side you turn, the robot would make that movement. That’s gyroscopes,” he adds. “They are studying a lot of things that they would not see until their career or very high courses and they are doing it when they are 10 or 12 years old. And they are playing.”

Generations better prepared for the labor market and more girls in Science?
It is conceivable that if children acquire all this knowledge from a young age, they will arrive better trained in a labor market that increasingly demands more technological profiles.

“The jobs most in demand today are related to digitization, but it goes further. If we allow the student to improve these skills, in the end he will be formed as a complete citizen, and all the skills he has acquired will be necessary for the world of work”, reflects Albalad.

“There is a lack of employees and a huge demand related to the development of applications, cloud systems or cybersecurity and, as time goes by, we believe it will be greater,” he adds about the need for technological profiles.

There is a lack of employees and a huge demand related to the development of applications, cloud systems or cybersecurity
Julio Albalad, director of INTEF

Casado, from the UOC, draws attention to another aspect: the effect it can have on social differences: “There are many paid extracurricular courses in robotics and programming that are not affordable for certain families. Including programming and robotics in schools can give access to this knowledge to boys and girls, regardless of their economic level, thus giving them the possibility of choosing a technological profession as an option for the future”.

Furthermore, the large gender gap cannot be ignored. The data is reviewed by Albalad: “In what we know as STEM subjects, science, engineering and mathematics, the presence of girls is a minority. In the case of FP, in the middle grades related to technology and digitization they are a quarter more or less of the total number of students and in the higher grades they do not even reach 10%. The same thing happens when we go to the university environment.”

Could introducing programming and robotics in the classroom make more girls end up leaning towards scientific-technical careers? “If we begin to use a programming language that is highly adapted to any age, or very friendly robotic devices that allow us to start implementing them from the childhood stages, we believe that we can promote interest in these disciplines, STEM, for all students. If it reaches all students, we are convinced that it will be able to reduce this gap”, affirms the director of INTEF.

When it comes to choosing extracurricular training, there are hardly any girls in programming and robotics courses
Carlos Casado Martínez, professor at the UOC

Casado points out that “even today we continue to have the bias that computing is a thing for men.” “When it comes to choosing extracurricular training, there are hardly any girls in the programming and robotics courses. It is not about forcing girls to dedicate themselves to technology, but that they can get to know it and decide if they like it. If they don’t know it, they can’t decide if they like it or not, and unfortunately, without knowing it, they often decide they don’t like it”, argues the professor.

From Canedo’s experience, in some cases parents call them to sign their children up for a class and after a bit of rebound they look for another one for the girl. “We see here that when the girls come to class, they feel more comfortable with crafts,” she details. Through activities such as creating a robot painter with a glass with markers for legs, they can give free rein to that part, while adding robotics and electronics. “They like. They love to make Legos, they love to program”, says Canedo. “That is why it is very important, from a very early age, to introduce it in schools, so that they have access to it and get hooked on it,” she defends.

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