Newfoundland teachers learn coding — and what it could mean for the next generation

"I just found it so fascinating and fun, really surprisingly fun."

They are learning the technical language that drives apps, websites and other software

About 70 teachers attended a Code Create Teach workshop in St. John's on Tuesday. (Kids Code Jeunesse/Twitter)

If you asked kids how their teachers spend their summer vacations, they probably wouldn't guess "pretending to be a blindfolded robot." But that is exactly how about 70 teachers in St. John's spent one one Tuesday in July. 

The teachers were participating in a workshop offered by Kids Code Jeunesse, in partnership with Lighthouse Labs, to help them bring coding into their classrooms.

Coding is a technical language, of sorts, that is used to program websites and apps and other computer software — essentially, programming.

As part of the workshop, teachers were blindfolded and asked to pretend to be robots, while others in the workshop had to give instructions to lead the "robots" to a ping-pong ball.

"We start out with everyone having fun, everyone laughing, making a lot of mistakes, and really seeing that this can be as fun as just playing a game," Juliet Waters, senior education director with Kids Code Jeunesse, told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

Juliet Waters is with Kids Code Jeunesse, and Don Burks is with Lighthouse Labs. The two organizations are working together to provide coding workshops to teachers across the country. (CBC)

About 70 teachers attended the Code Create Teach workshop in St. John's on Tuesday,  and there is a long waiting list for future workshops. Another workshop with about 50 teachers was held in Gander on Thursday. Kids Code Jeunesse also held a coding workshop for kids at the Johnson Geo Centre in St. John's on Saturday, with another planned for July 28.

The popularity of the workshops is a reflection of the increasing priority placed on coding in Canadian schools, including those here in Newfoundland and Labrador.

In April, the provincial government announced $400,000 for in-school coding education and resources. At the time of the announcement, then-education minister Dale Kirby said the money was part of a $1-million pot of cash meant to introduce students to the subject.

'Really surprisingly fun'

Waters came to coding later after starting their careers in other fields.

She previously worked as a journalist and writer and began to learn coding with her son when he was 11.

She was surprised to discover that coding was creative, like doing puzzles, but making something at the same time. Those experiences, and her own coding education that followed, led her to start Kids Code Jeunesse.

"I just found it so fascinating and fun, really surprisingly fun," Waters said.

"I just really wanted to bring that to to other people, to other parents, to other women, to other journalists."

​Don Burks, head instructor at Lighthouse Labs, also came to coding from a different direction — as a musician. He had an interest in computers, something he saw as a hobby, but also fell in love with coding over time.

Participants complete the 'blindfolded robot' exercise, meant to model computational thinking, in Gander at a Code Create Teach workshop. (Kids Code Jeunesse/Twitter)

"Kind of same as Juliet, I discovered the fun and I discovered the creativity and the passion for making things, and being able to solve problems and share my solution with other people," Burke told the Morning Show.

"So my hobby and my passion sort of swapped places, and this became my career."

Learning how to think like a programmer

Now they're spreading that knowledge and passion through Code Create Teach, and helping educators bring coding into their own classrooms.

The teachers taking the Code Create Teach workshops aren't necessarily science-focused, or knowledgeable about code when they come in. They tend to be elementary school generalists, and about 70 per cent of the teachers are very new to coding while the rest have some experience or exposure, Burks said.

"They're just very, very curious about this, and how to bring it to their kids, and how to make sure that they don't get too stuck in their classroom full of kids that are often learning it faster than they are," Waters said.

But coding education isn't only about learning programming languages like Python or HTML. It's also about teaching kids how to think like a programmer.

One of the easier ways to do that is through computational thinking, which is introduced in the workshops, Burke said. 

"A lot of people get apprehensive because it has that word 'compute' on it," he said. 

"But really what we're doing is showing a problem-solving method, that's all it is."

That's what was behind the blindfolded robot exercise — teaching those basic problem-solving skills in ways that translate directly to technology makes it easier to make the jump to coding, Burke said.

"You give them the basic skills for the problem solving, and then you just give them tools to be able to do it quicker, faster, more accurately."

Those skills are in demand in Newfoundland and Labrador. A 2015 study by the Information and Communications Technology Council predicted that by next year, the province will have 3,800 unfilled jobs in the information and communications technology sector.

About 70 teachers attended a Code Create Teach workshop in Gander on Thursday. (Kids Code Jeunesse/Twitter)

Today's kindergarten students may be a couple decades away from filling those empty positions, but getting their teachers excited about coding is one step in getting their generation ready for the tech jobs of the future.

"For the most part, what we're looking to do is kind of ignite the same passion that we have for doing this and teaching this and showing them how they can bring it into their practice every day," Burke said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from the St. John's Morning Show