OP-ED

When it comes to computers, think creation versus consumption

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Now that school is out, how are 13-year-olds spending their summer? Probably on a computer. Microsoft founder Bill Gates was 13 when he wrote his first computer program. In 1975, at age 20, his fascination with computers led him to believe that most households someday would have one. How right he was. Today, computers are smaller, less expensive, more powerful, easier to use and more pervasive than ever. They are in our phones, televisions, cars, toys and games. Computing devices, especially those that are hand-held, have become objects for endless consumption, with little potential for creation. Along the way, somehow we have lost the joy of invention.

This year, I decided to spend part of my summer returning to the classroom to participate in The Raspberry Pi Foundation’s Picademy hosted at Johnson & Wales University. Eighty other educators from Cranston, Johnston, Warwick, other Rhode Island districts, and places like Singapore and New Delhi, had the same idea. The Raspberry Pi is a single-board computer, about the size of a deck of cards that was introduced in the UK in 2012 with a price under fifty dollars. Today, over eleven million units have been sold worldwide. What sets this computer apart from the typical household PC is that there are exposed connections to which low-cost devices such as cameras, motion sensors, motors, and LED lights can be attached; and an easy-to-understand computer language (Python) is included to control and receive data from the attachments. Most importantly, it encourages creation.

During our training, we gained hands on experience, demonstrating music synthesis, light patterns, and electric motor control, creating projects that ranged from cameras triggered by sensors, to automatic pet feeders, to traffic control simulations. These presentations were designed to show us how we can encourage young people to see computing as a means of production, not consumption; of creation, not conformity.

My Picademy classmates were mostly junior high or high school teachers, with a few primary school teachers in the mix. We were truly impressed with the new ways we learned to engage students, and are looking forward to bringing our experience to the classroom this fall. By incorporating cameras, motion sensors, motors, and LED lights to lesson plans, students can see there is far more to computer science than games.

Today, educators across the globe are engaging in the challenge to help students see computer science and software engineering as something beyond being good at a computer game or designing a web page. For the student who writes his or her first program as a college freshman, sadly it’s too late. Whether the process is too intimidating, too time-consuming, or too fraught with failure, it doesn't matter; many students simply give up and change majors. It is critical for educators and parents to promote the growing science, technology, engineering and math segment of the economy to our young people. We start our children in soccer and little league in kindergarten. Music lessons are offered in the early grades. Why not expose these young people to creative computer skills at the same age?

Locally, the situation is improving as computer science is being implemented at elementary level. Students in high school are getting more meaningful exposure to technology, but it isn't enough. The bug needs to bite much sooner, and through innovative trainings like Picademy, which connects a community of over 1,000 educators around the world, that is starting to happen. The Raspberry Pi computer is just one example of how educators and parents can foster an interest in computer science among K-12 students. They can experience the joy of invention by making their own music, rigging up a motion-sensor to take a picture, or monitoring and recording the temperature in an aquarium.

We in higher education have an enormous responsibility to educate and prepare our students for careers in the high demand fields of science, technology, engineering and math; however, for this to happen, K-12 educators must have the opportunity to expose students to computer science, equipping them with the computing and technology skills needed to succeed during their post-secondary education and beyond. By encouraging creation at a young age, we can build skills and prepare our young people to apply themselves and create, rather than consume. Just like young Bill Gates, we want young people exploring the potential of computing and continuing the revolution of society through the world of computers.

James Sheusi is an associate professor and chair of the engineering & information technologies program at the Johnson & Wales University College of Engineering & Design.

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