Boring classes mean the next generation isn’t interested in IT – how to make it exciting?

“Computing” courses in schools have been nothing more than office skills courses, making the field of IT seem ‘boring’ to young people. They have lost interest in learning more, so how do we begin to show students (and grown-ups) that computing really is fun and exciting? Here a few ideas from Nick Heath at TechRepublic:

Make programming easy

Sitting down and learning the programming vernacular, the nuances of variables, methods and objects, can be daunting. But there are a plenty of ways to learn programming that are gentle on beginners, such as tools that allow users to create programs by using drag and drop or tile-based interfaces. Examples include MIT’s Scratch, Microsoft’s Kodu, Alice and Gamemaker. These provide a simple way for tech amateurs to learn about behaviors like changing variables and creating branching programs without having to get their hands dirty with code. For anyone wanting to get a bit closer to programming languages themselves there are sites like Codeacademy, which teaches users Javascript via a series of interactive tutorials, starting with the basics and explaining each step. While tools such as Greenfoot provide a programming environment that helps novices get to grips with Java and object-oriented programming using a simple GUI. If none of these tools hit the spot then there’s forthcoming Raspberry Pi, a $25 Linux computer created with the ambition of making it easy to learn coding, which can be set up to boot straight into programming environments for a variety of languages, such as Python or C.

Break out the robots

If coding simple games doesn’t kindle the kids’ interest then how about having a robot at their beck and call. The Lego Mindstorm platform allows kids to build robots allows and learn both about electromechanics – how to use servos, motors, sensors and the like to create a moving robot, and also how to control them using a relatively simple programming interface. Alternatively there’s the Arduino, an open source platform that allow users to build their own DIY electronics. Arduinos are essentially small, cheap, programmable microcomputers that can be combined with input and output devices like sensors, LEDs and microphones and controlled via a custom, easy to use programming language. Arduino users have used the platform to create everything from a kettle that only boils when it isn’t watched to a motion-sensing teddy bear.

Delve into computing’s past

If you want someone to learn the principles of how a modern computer works then show them the very first room-sized number crunchers. Crack open a computer case today and the chips and circuitry offer little clue to what makes computers’ tick, but in the days of the first electromechanical and electronic computers the inner-workings of information processing were writ large in the punched cards and red hot valves. Take kids to the likes of the National Museum of Computing to see the Colossus, the valve-based machine that helped crack Hitler’s Lorenz code in WWII. Show them how punched cards were used to program the Jacquard Loom or to rapidly count data in the Hollerith Tabulating Machine, and help them understand the evolutionary link between the iPhone and the 1940s electromechanical computer, the Z3. What better way to teach them about the building blocks of computing that today have vanished from view.

Get cracking with codes

Cracking codes may seem to be a far cry from coding, but writing algorithms to carry out pattern recognition and extract relevant information from data are key skills when both breaking ciphers and programming. Not to mention that cracking codes is fun.

Game the system

If universities want more teenagers to study computer science courses then why not enlist the help of the video games industry. Colleges should work with major games publishers to create scholarships, extended work placements and professional mentoring for computer science undergraduates. Providing a clear career path from studying computer science into the video games industry would encourage more teenagers to choose to pursue a career in computing, and could also reduce numbers of computer science graduates who choose to work outside of IT after leaving university.

Explode the jobless myth

The prevailing wisdom is that tech graduates will struggle to get a job, and that’s something that needs to be addressed. There’s a lot of misleading information out there –  Teachers and careers advisors should get the message across to kids that a career in IT offers good employment prospects, decent pay and the chance to work at companies making games and apps, and developing the computing technologies that will shape our future.

Can you think of more ways to make IT – and careers in IT – more attractive to the next generation of workers?