Barbie teacher and other fun tools to embed code into young minds

In the age of the fourth industrial revolution, where digital literacy is a key determiner, how does young India fare?

Feb 26th 2018

During an interview, Steve Jobs once said, “Everybody in this country should learn to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.” Although it was decades ago, he had hit the nail on the head with that one.

In a recent development, toy maker Mattel partnered with code education company Tynker to make Barbie-themed programming lessons. The idea – by the year 2020, ten million kids should learn how to code.

Software – The global language

In the age of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and internet of things (IoT), Indian schools’ curriculum is still stuck at teaching history of computer programming and basic introduction to basic coding like HTML and C/C++. Today’s digital natives are living in a software-driven world. The World Economic Forum says the fourth industrial revolution will lead to profound shifts across the globe. It is no surprise then that data is the new oil and data science is one of the most sought after skills.

Related: Skilling India's techies: Opportunity or challenge?

According to NASSCOM, India produces more than 2.5 lakh STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates annually. But these young graduates often need to be reskilled in emerging technologies.

India’s whiz kids

There are exceptions though. For instance, Tanmay Bakshi who started coding when he was five, is an AI-cognitive developer, TEDx speaker, and IBM Cloud advisor. But his interest for code was sparked by his father, a computer programmer, who in Bakshi’s words, “would code a lot”.

New Delhi-based Rohan Verma, a self-taught coder who Google described as a “computer science rockstar” in a recent Instagram post, says his love for coding developed due to his own desire. He created an app that provides nutritional information on food by just taking a picture of it. The app leverages TensorFlow, Google’s open-source machine learning framework.

Mattle and Tynker’s initiative targets young children in kindergarten and up, and will use Barbie’s several careers to introduce the children to programming concepts.

“Introducing programming or computing beyond basic MS Word or Powerpoint will result in children getting exposed to programming and understand if they like doing this,” says Verma. Especially, targeting this curriculum to girls will help expose them to career options they might have not pursued otherwise, he adds.

So, what needs to change?

“Coding does not need to be part of the curriculum as much as programming fundamentals and programming foundations which teach the basic concepts to enable the students to utilize automation in their day to day lives,” points out Verma. Coding, essentially, is just another language, which can be learnt on the go. Although, foundation principles like Loops, Functions, and being able to solve equations should be a basic skill taught to everyone, he says.

Another way to guide children into the world of computer programming is through Raspberry Pi. The credit-card sized mini-computer allows people to learn how to program in Scratch and Python. The small device can be plugged into a computer, enabling kids to use the computer they built themselves.

Then there are initiatives like the Google India ‘Code to Learn Contest’, in which students can make small programs in a drag to drop environment. “This enables them to get more familiar and less scared of programming concepts. Embracing computing and reducing man hours is one of the basic skills one can learn to enhance his/her productivity,” adds Verma.

The MIT App Inventor and Scratch are very good tools that help students to go further.

It doesn’t matter which route you take, software skills are not only for people who want to work with tech organizations. You could also get into programming as a hobby, the fact is that it will be part of the day-to-day lives of professionals in the future, whether you like it or not, explains Verma.