SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Published 24 May 2015
It’s wonderful to see leading voices in our national Parliament getting vocal about the need to dramatically boost our educational efforts in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Politicians like Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull are bang on when they emphasise the value of teaching coding and they should be congratulated for that vision.
Coding is not a niche skill. It is the universal language through which humans instruct technology on how to behave.
It teaches critical thinking skills. It is the language of logic. It teaches computational thinking. Coding is about preparing for a future where opportunities for those with digital skills are endless.
In a world increasingly dominated by algorithms, this skill is fundamental. It helps us understand not just how we can use technology effectively, but also how we can design it and shape it to improve how we live.
But we need to go a step further.
Because talk of “STEM” in isolation actually doesn’t make a lot of sense to those who are truly creative or entrepreneurial.
What we realise in the modern tech industry is there’s a need for STEAM – STEM plus “arts” for the sake of a cute acronym, or creativity.
STEAM is what’s needed to forge a nation of innovators. We need an education system that holistically promotes all these skills. The question of arts or sciences is not a binary one. We must integrate both.
For a striking example of STEAM take a wander through Sydney’s CBD while the Vivid festival is on.
The harbour will explode with psychedelic art installations and projections. Martin Place will buzz with interactive drone games. Millions will be braving Sydney’s chilly weather among bright lights and bright ideas.
Thousands of engineers, designers, technologists, and artists have worked together to create this sensational festival. Yet neat borders cannot be drawn between their efforts.
To truly encourage a revolution in education we must crush the stereotype of coding as the exclusive domain of socially-stunted young men.
To do this, we need to add a huge dose of creativity.
Add coding to physical computing and design and a whole new world opens up for students at all levels.
And if you think this sounds too advanced for primary school, then you haven’t seen what teachers and students are already doing.
From creating automated bins to ward off pesky cockatoos, to building their own Vivid light displays that react to music, young students are often the most creative.
They are the most willing to take a risk and try something new. To them there is no inherent boundary between creativity and technical understanding – each needs the other to achieve the goals they seek.
We know that teaching young people to create their own technology is also an important way to engage young girls and women into STEM.
According to Intel’s internal research, this ‘blue sky’ creative element in an integrated STEAM approach attracts girls, in particular, to the maker movement. It presents an open door to learning
STEM skills in a way that engages their imagination.
With a little boost getting started they are then swift to understand how coding and STEAM will help them get ahead.
One young student, Claire Helmers, recently told us at Intel when we visited her school that even though she was looking to medicine as a career, understanding how to program would allow her to understand and collaborate with others to invent new health technology. Her teacher, Juliette Major, actively encourages her students to think about being creators of technology to solve problems around them.
Of course there are plenty of savvy young students already teaching themselves coding and digital skills in their own time. But if we are to give all young Australians the opportunity to thrive in the 21st century, they must have the opportunity to learn at school. Exposure to these critical skills should not be a social lottery.
Australia’s adults are already on board. Recent Newspoll research commissioned by the Australian Information Industry Association found 80 per cent of parents thought that digital skills and computer programming should be taught in primary and secondary schools.
To succeed in a digital century, Australia will need modern skills to propel the economy forward. This will touch every industry – banking, manufacturing, farming, health, retail, fashion, design, the creative arts, and more.
Technology is transforming the way these industries operate from the inside out and the sophistication required to innovate will only increase.
Teaching skills like technology design and coding is not just about future-proofing our kids’ employment; it is about future-proofing our evolving knowledge-innovation economy.
When Professor Stephen Hawking “visited” Sydney recently via 3D hologram to deliver a lecture at the Sydney Opera House, he encouraged his audience to, “look up at the stars and not down at your feet”.
It’s great advice. For those in Sydney during Vivid, take a moment on the way up to drink in the city’s kaleidoscopic skyline. Then consider what our children might make possible if we give them the STEAM to freely mix creativity with technical ability.
Kate Burleigh is the managing director of Intel Australia & New Zealand, a major partner and sponsor of Vivid Sydney.