How plaster sensors, electronic playdough, and DIY-coded games will prepare our kids (and ourselves) for a digital-making future.
by Bethany Koby, Technology Will Save Us
In a 2014 report titled, “Young Digital Makers,” the The National Endowment for Science Technology and Art in the UK (NESTA) defines “digital making” as “learning about technology through the process of making it yourself.”
At Technology Will Save Us, we think this is a pretty great definition. We believe young people should experience technology regularly throughout their childhood. We believe that parents should understand and support this type of learning through exposure, that educators should be trained and given the budget to develop tech curricula, and that government should support and incentivise these efforts. But the reason we like this definition is not just for its simplicity and affinity with our core mission, we love it because it focuses on technology as a whole, and not solely on developing programming skills, which is getting a lot of airtime from governments, parents, and brands at the moment. We believe that programming is a hugely important skill, but is the goal really to create a generation of programmers? We hope not!
So where do young people get to do this digital making? Well, some of them are lucky enough to have engineering-, programming-, or technically-inclined parents. Some of them are lucky enough to go to a code club or after-school programs where they get to make things with tech, and even fewer of them are doing this in school. And yet, again, according to NESTA, over eight million young people in the UK are estimated to have an interest in trying “digital making,” but only 130,000 of these aforementioned learning opportunities were available in 2014.
So what is a 23-person start-up in the heart of East London in Hackney doing to to change this?
We are using design.
For us, design is not just the process of creating new products and services, it is about creating meaningful, engaging experiences and building a new future iteratively through engagement. Our focus on design-led learning is particularly evident in a new kit we have developed in partnership with the BBC. The micro:bit is the most ambitious education project that BBC has embarked on in 30 years. It is a tech tool designed to inspire a generation to learn programming through creating objects in the physical world. It will be given to one million young people in the UK in the fall of 2015.
Our role in the project was to represent the 12-year-old child in the design and engineering process. We took the ambitions and interest of young people and placed them at the center of the process of designing the micro:bit with the engineering partners. This allowed us to make difficult decisions around the functionality and the look of this little tool. We made the front of the device the “project” side to look and feel more friendly, while the back of the device is the “technology” side and is more didactic and descriptive. This meant that we designed the technology for the end user — not focusing on every possibility, but on the core elements that could become the building blocks of great learning experiences. So the micro:bit is a platform designed for young people and not a platform designed for engineers. Most importantly, it gave this partnership the framework to continually keep the 12 year old at the heart of the project.
Cathy Davidson, a scholar of learning technology, concluded that 65% of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven’t even been invented yet. We think kids will invent future jobs based on playing with Minecraft, making thirsty plant detectors in their kitchens, and designing their own games controlled by their micro:bits. This is why Tech Will Save Us is focusing on sparking the creative imagination of young people using hands-on technology.
We don’t know what every young person is going to become passionate about, but we believe if parents and kids can have more opportunities to make, explore, and have fun with technology, these creative experiences will give them the confidence to become lifelong learners and invent their futures.