Kids tech camp Cypher Coders teaches children 'the language of the future'
Combining hands-on creative themes with learning computer languages is the key to getting children ready for a world defined by AI and robotics
In the IT suite at the American School in St John's Wood, a line of 5-11-year-olds are intensely focused on their screens.
They are trying to land polar bears on a succession of icebergs - but instead of passively gaming like millions of others in the long school holidays, the difference is that they've written the programme themselves.
Welcome to Cypher, a holiday tech camp that's the brainchild of Notting Hill-based computer scientist Elizabeth Tweedale.
Set up in 2016, Cypher has schools around London and teaching staff who can collect children from tube stations and Uber them to camp - a service that's mindful of the busy schedules of working parents.
On a typical day, children have a touch typing session then learn coding with breaks for physical activity such as a team game or outdoor hunt, plus creative tasks so they aren't glued to screens all day. But the American entrepreneur, who has three children aged 10, eight and nearly one, says it's what's happening on screen that matters. "Pointing children in the direction of creative projects is the main thing," she says. "If they are creating things, communicating and interacting with their friends and being educated I don't limit that type of screen time. It's the passive YouTube watching that is limited in our house."
Following in the footsteps of his entrepreneurial parents, her eldest son has set up his own online shop selling trinkets and designing logos for friends, with the proceeds going to his school charity. In fact creativity is the watchword for Cypher (cyphercoders.com) which caters for children up to 14 years old and focuses on the creative applications for coding.
A quote from Apple CEO Tim Cook on the website gives you the idea: "Creativity is the goal, coding is just to allow that. Creativity is in the front seat, technology is in the backseat, it is the blend of these that you can do such powerful things with now."
Camp weeks are themed around hands-on projects that link coding to real world issues - the polar bear game I saw was part of an environment week where children are encouraged to think about the Arctic, and how technology can support conservation projects - such as using drones to remove plastic in our oceans.
A popular competitive task called Game Of Drones involves using a drone to thread a string between two hoops. "One of my aims in setting up Cypher was not just to cater for those gamer geeks who will become computer programmers whether you help them of not", says Tweedale adding: "that was me as a child."
"How do you get the other 99 percent of children to be interested? I also didn't want to do something special for girls, I wanted to be inclusive rather than segregate girls, and creative themes are the perfect way to get them engaged."
Fashion, music and health are also on the rosta of themes. Fit For The Future sees kids making a pedometer.
A computer scientist who went on to complete a masters in architecture, Tweedale saw at first hand how creatives were "running up against a brick wall" with computer specialists because they didn't speak each other's languages. When the architects started to see computing as a practical rather than a tech issue - "a specific language to solve a specific problem" everyone collaborated much better.
That's why she's passionate about engaging our digital native children in understanding what she calls "the language of the future". She points out that by the time they leave university their world will be increasingly defined by AI with robotics commonplace, autonomous vehicles and some jobs replaced by computers.
Learning coding and computational thinking will help them to navigate this new reality, to embrace these technologies rather than be intimidated by them and make them "future ready".
"The skills of value will be those that make us human, creativity, communication and problem solving," says Tweedale. "We encourage children to work together as a team, not to segregate into age groups. Getting five nine and 12 year olds on the same project, so they aren't just learning tech skills but how to collaborate, make friends in a new environment, to wield technology for themselves and to think outside the box."
She has written five books for children explaining different coding languages and says parents often ask which one their children should learn.
"It's not about a single language but about understanding the base foundation of computer science and transferring those skills between the different languages so it becomes second nature - by the end, kids can translate between the languages very well," she says.
She adds: "We are not creating a generation of computer programmers, not all of them will be programmers, but it's the language of the future that builds all of technology and everyone will need to understand it to interact with it."
Interestingly Tweedale herself is dyslexic and by her own admission an "extremely slow reader".
Growing up she found the language of computing easier to navigate than written texts and says the 'dyslexic brain' may well be better at solving certain kinds of problems.
She thinks the fear of AI and computing is because people believe computers have the same intelligence as humans.
"Not true, people are programming algorithms to solve specific problems. Parents have this fear of technology but children understand that AI is just working alongside those algorithms, what we are doing is taking the fear out of it and putting the fun into it. Technology is changing extremely quickly. As parents we always want to be more expert than our children, but they know more than us and we need to let them teach us."
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