Tim: Yeah. My background, I spent the last 16 years working as a professional system administrator and software engineer. I've worked in many different arenas. I worked in research and development, and education. Most recently I worked in government, and military, most recently within an ISP here in the U.K.
In the last couple years I started my own business called Wolf Software. Out of that came along the coding in schools initiative. The big problem that's been identified, at least in the U.K., is there is a big skills gap for programmers. Something we noticed when trying to recruit software engineers is the younger end of the industry, the people coming out of University, or the people who have been out of University two or three years seem to have little or no real exposure to programming and programming techniques.
The U.K. government changed the curriculum around 12 years ago and removed programming from the computing curriculum. They're only recently bringing it back. It's actually coming back at the start of this academic year in September. We found that most the schools are unprepared. Most of the teaching staff is unprepared. The students are unprepared to take on this new set of requirements, one of which is programming.
So our idea is to work with schools to build programming clubs out of hours to give the students who want to learn more and more detail on programming and what you can do with it, an opportunity to do that. So that's the idea in a nutshell.
samzenpus: Why was programming taken out of the curriculum? Was it budget cuts?
Tim: I don't actually know the justification. They basically removed computer science and computer studies, and brought in information communication technology, or, as I call it, secretarial skills. They basically removed proper computer studies, and they were teaching them applications as opposed to computing and programming and operating systems. I'm not aware of the full reasoning or justification. It was something that was done under the Labor government.
A lot of people in the industry have been lobbying the government for many, many years to bring back proper computer science, proper computer studies. And that's now been done. That starts at the start of this academic year.
samzenpus: What ages does your program cover?
Tim: Our aim is to work primarily with 11 to 16 year olds. There's another group in the U.K. called Code Club and they work with primary school children up to the age of 11. So what we're looking to do is work alongside them. Where they've taught the children basic principles, and they played around with software like Scratch and a few of the other applications that let them get an idea of how to build games and basic software, we will then come in pre-GCSE, so around 11 to 13 to start with, and introduce them to actual programming.
So we'll be looking at things like PHP, Python, Ruby, proper actual languages where they'll be writing the code, and then working with the schools and the students through the GCSE years of 13 through 16.
samzenpus: How long does the program last? Is it a whole year? Or is it broken up into semesters?
Tim: We're breaking it up into the semester concept. What we'll do is, there'll be an initial three or four week mini course, which will give them an introduction to programming principles in general. So we'll be covering things like, what are integers, what are strings, what are variables, what are if statements, conditional logic, and things like that; just the basic grounding of it.
And then what we're aiming to do is create a number of optional courses. So they could then do a one semester course in PHP or Perl or Python. So we'll create all of these different, ten week long courses, the students can then opt in to do whatever ones they want to. So we could be in a situation where on half of the club is doing Perl and the other half is doing PHP.
So it's more a case of inspiring the kids to actually program, and then allowing them to pick what languages and what direction they want that programming to go into. We're talking to a group at the moment that may be able to help us develop a programming semester for mobile development for Apple and Android devices. We're also looking at developing a short course for building and looking after Raspberry pi and what software development we can do with one of those.
samzenpus: Who does the work with the kids? Do you try to teach the school staff these skills?
Tim: It's a bit of both. With the first two or three pilot schools that we have, we work with the staff, but we actually attend the club as well. Primarily myself, I attend a lot of the clubs. So that they can actually ask questions which the teachers, in the short term, may not have an answer for. In the longer term, as it grows, obviously that's not going to be sustainable. I can't attend every club across the country.
So the idea is to engage with other small businesses and other software companies around the U.K. and get them to get involved in their local area under the coding in schools banner. And try and get them to attend at least once a month to be there as an expert, as it were, in programming. So that they've always got someone they can go to.
We're also building a set of discussion forums, things like that, online. So if the kids have got questions they can post them into the forum. And hopefully kids in other schools will be able to answer. And we'll start getting them to build their own software community.
We have the open source community that we're involved in. If we can build that sort of community feel across the country, where the kids are actually engaging with each other and potentially working on projects across the schools, that would be the ultimate aim.
samzenpus: One of the things I read on your website is that you focus a lot on how to get girls interested in computer science. Do you specifically target female students?
Tim: We don't specifically target them. What we have is we have a couple of undergraduates who work with us who are female students. They, themselves, have come to us saying that they were never really given an opportunity. They were never pushed and shown what you can do with IT. It's a common problem in the U.K., where the student uptake is probably about 80% male.
So one of the things that we want to do, at least with the staff, is say to them that when people are talking about joining the club, make sure you ask the girls if it's something they want to do. Don't wait for them to come to you, because most of the time they won't. You need to almost engage them first.
So as a club we won't be going directly to the students. The staff will approach the students. But we're just saying to them, make sure that the girls are aware that this is something that they can do. It's not a boring thing. Once they have learned the basics they can build whatever they want to build. There are some very powerful women in IT that, hopefully, we can then use as role models.
samzenpus: Do the kids get school credit for this? Or is it mostly just so that they can learn these skills?
Tim: At the moment it is purely to gain new skills and to gain new understanding and hopefully something of interest to them. One of the longer term aims, it will take a number of years, is we would like to work with people like Computing at School and some of the others, to actually have this become an accredited course. So if they picked, say, three of the different modules, and they got graded on a certain level in those, that would then count towards their final examination. But at the moment it's not in a state to do that.
samzenpus: The world economic state being what it is, a lot of education programs are being cut. Not just in the U.K., but all over. Where do you see programs like yours fitting into the future of education?
Tim: I think they are there to facilitate education. If we can get businesses and other people around the country realizing that the new students that are there are going to be their employees in 10 years' time, then they'll see that as a reason to give back. One of the things that started our thinking was if we don't start teaching the younger people now in 10 years' time there won't be any programmers to do the work.
So hopefully they'll see that as a way of giving back, not only to the industry as a whole, but also to their local communities to help out the schools. There are a lot of parents that we've spoken to, some of which work in IT, that have come along and said, "Well, you know, this is good for my kids. It's good for their school. How can we help?" So we see it working, hopefully, alongside the set educational system. But to give enhancement and opportunities to those that want to take it outside of school.
samzenpus: Have you talked to anyone in the government, about getting these programs in schools? Or do you think you're better served working with the schools directly?
Tim: I think in the short term, we're better served just talking directly to the schools. Once we can build up sufficient momentum, then we actually have something that we can take back to the local educational authorities, or to the government itself, and say, "Look. We've got 20% of all the schools in the U.K. onboard with this. This is something that you should be doing, but we're doing it. Why don't you help us?"
At the moment we don't quite have enough traction to do that. But we are talking and working with some bigger organization like, say, Computing at School, who have four thousand, five hundred members at schools across the country. So we're working with them. It's something they see as a gap. That's why we're working with them, because we fill a niche that they want to fill.
The aim, eventually, is for all of the groups like us, Coding in Schools, Code Academy, Code Club, and all these other different groups to eventually come together and hopefully form a national initiative which will cover all of the age groups, in and out of school, which will give us a very strong position, then, to take to the government and say, "This is something that needs to be done from a governmental level."
samzenpus: Is there anything else you're working on now?
Tim: We've got two or three pilot schools that we're starting now. We've got the first summer schools being planned. We're actually going to do a summer school this year. Because the course is starting in September, the new students are taking it as an option, and the teachers really don't quite know what they are doing yet.
So we put together a week long summer school to work with the two or three pilot schools and the staff to work with the students. Just so they can get an idea of what it is that is coming. So that's quite an important one.
With funding being cut for educational stuff all over the place, one of the things we're trying to do at the moment is to raise funding via either donations or sponsorship. I've talked to Google, and Microsoft, and some of the major players in the market that are software oriented, to see if we can get some donations or sponsorship from them, because it's them that are going to benefit, obviously in the long term. I think that's everything.