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02 Dec, Friday
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Montreal Families

Why it is crucial to teach kids to code

Cell phones today fit in the palm of our hands. Yet they have more processing power than the massive IBM super-computers that sent men to the moon. And while computer programming – the language used to communicate with these machines – has been around for decades, it is only recently that politicians and educational institutions in Canada have taken note of its increasing importance.

The federal government made a huge statement on this topic in June of 2017 when it announced the launch of a $50 million coding initiative for young Canadians, known as the CanCode program. This large-scale and long-term investment reflects an anticipated shift in the future job market, which educators and policymakers believe will open up new opportunities for today’s youth.

Coding is the language of computation. It is a set of precise commands that instruct machines to complete specific tasks. And it is one of the driving technological forces that make up our everyday lives in 2018.

Streaming Netflix, posting your latest and greatest thoughts to the Twitterverse or even swiping your credit card at the local grocery store all involve many lines of code. But coding is also the cornerstone of more complex tasks like website creation and the design of sophisticated software. Some of the most common coding languages include Python, C++, Perl, HTML and Visual Basic.

A couple of summer camps and the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) have also recently taken a keen interest in coding education.

Montreal’s Laurus Lifestyles summer camp is looking to get a head start on training its youth in the digital languages of tomorrow. This year, Laurus introduced a Kids Computer Coding program during its March Break camp, which will be offered again during the summer camp season.

The coding program was created in response to parental demand and from a desire “to prepare the kids for a technological future’’ explained Ava Nouraeyan, director of camp operations at Laurus.

As part of the program, children will spend 75 minutes each day learning coding basics. The camp is in its final stages of testing with third-party apps like Scratch Jr., Studio Web and Bitsbox to determine which provide children with the most effective and age-appropriate techniques for learning.

Nouraeyan, a high school teacher by trade, said the goal is rather simple. It’s about lifting the digital curtain and revealing to children what is actually going on behind the screens they interact with every day.

‘‘Nowadays kids are just so obsessed with screen time,’’ she noted. ‘‘So why not, at such a young age, be able to teach them the intricacies behind the actual technology they’re using?’’

In the West Island, Nemesis Video Game Lounge is also getting in on the action. For its third consecutive year, the Pointe-Claire-based modern arcade will be hosting its KidCoders Summer Camp during the months of June and July. For a full two weeks, children will learn the basics of coding and, with Nemesis’ specially designed curriculum, will work towards creating their own unique video games using their imaginations and the skills they’ve acquired in class.

Shaundel Celestin founded Nemesis in 2006 and has seen first-hand the benefits of a coding and computer science oriented education. Nemesis has had more than 90 students enrol in the last three years. According to Celestin, all have learned to design their own video game by the end of their second week.

A former programming student herself, Celestin is adamant that children learn about computation as early in life as possible. ‘‘People need to learn how to program and create their own tools for the future because 80 per cent of jobs will be programming-related,’’ she explained.

The EMSB has also increasingly focused on training the next generation of coding Canadians. In January, the school board unveiled a new initiative geared towards the promotion of robotics, coding and artificial intelligence across its network of elementary and high schools.

The school board announced it will be taking a multi-pronged approach to the integration of coding and robotics into its schools. ‘‘[By] teaching our students computer technology and how to code starting in kindergarten, we are showing parents that we are preparing their children for tomorrow,’’ said EMSB Chairman Angela Mancini.

But for students, perhaps one of the more exciting announcements is the partnership between Ubisoft’s CODEX program and Youth Fusion, a local charity organization. Known for some of the gaming community’s best-selling video games, including the popular  Prince of Persia, Ubisoft has been at the cutting-edge of video game design and programming for years.

And while the tech titan’s headquarters are in Europe, one of its key divisions is in Montreal, where the company is looking to play its own part in bridging the digital gap between kids and the coders and programmers of tomorrow.

At the high school level, Ubisoft’s CODEX program aims to involve students in the different stages of video-game creation, all under the guidance of trained Ubisoft mentors. The program will also serve as a motivational tool for academic success and to promote further interest in programming and coding careers.

But for educators like Nouraeyan, it ultimately comes down to building a strong foundation of knowledge on which children can build on themselves as they progress throughout their time in the Quebec education system and beyond.

‘‘If I had an opportunity to learn from childhood, this could have been like a third language that I could read, write and speak,’’ she explained.

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