We are used to teaching kids from middle and upper class backgrounds. Children who live in areas with access to coding club and whose parents can pay for after-school computer science lessons. Children who attend the best schools in the centre of Amsterdam. Children who are in ‘gifted’ programs. Children whose homes are full of the latest technological devices and STEM-related toys. Children whose parents earn high salaries because they work in technology fields.
Thanks to generous support from Google Education in the form of a Google RISE Award, we are now teaching children in Amsterdam Southeast (de Bijlmer), an area considered the city’s ghetto. Our students are overwhelmingly minority and come from low-income families. Many come from single-parent families.
Many of these children struggle in school. Others have behavioural problems. While most of them are used to using computers, smartphones and tablets, all of them are newbies to computer science, programming and robotics.
All this doesn’t matter. Because we are on a mission to leverage our 21st Century Skills Clubs in Amsterdam Southeast to close the opportunity gap and help students there develop computational thinking skills via computer science and technological literacy education.
We realize that the lessons we had planned to teach in Amsterdam Southeast are often too abstract for these students. We also have discovered that collaboration, teamwork and designing tangible objects with arts and crafts supplies and robotics kits are new and sometimes challenging experiences for them.
We reached out to our friends at Raft Collective, a design and technology agency in Amsterdam, to help us develop new engagement strategies. We’ve worked with Raft over the past year and a half. Joe, their co-founder, has facilitated many of the brainstorming sessions we organize to develop our curriculum with teachers, technology professionals, artists and designers.
Joe and Lily from Raft challenged us to use art and design as entry points into computer science because these subjects are less abstract and theoretical for students. Joe, himself, attended an arts-focused high school in inner-city Washington D.C. and referenced his experiences.
They suggested that we develop new lessons which combine user interface and technology design with computer science concepts such as systems. They challenged us to develop lessons which answer questions such as ‘how do you communicate function through design, shape, colour?’ and ‘how do you trigger a tech device user to turn, press a button or drag an icon?’
We also brainstormed some fun games which teach kids the value of teamwork, collaboration and effective communication. For all of our students, not only those in Amsterdam Southeast, working together and sharing ideas is especially challenging. This may be a reflection of an education system which prioritizes individual performance and the testing of individual students.
Human potential is a terrible thing to waste. It’s going to take new alliances and new ways of thinking to develop teaching approaches and lessons which bring computational thinking, computer science and technological literacy to all children ensure that all children receive computer science.
We’re grateful (and excited) to start tapping into Amsterdam’s large pool of creative industries to re-imagine computer science education.