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In the UK we need an estimated 1.2 million more people with specialist digital skills by 2022, the UK Government said recently, yet access to talent is still a challenge for tech communities across the UK, according to the 2018 Tech Nation Report.
As a mother of two teenagers, I believe that efforts to close the UK digital skills gap need to start when children are in school. That’s why last year I got Red Hat involved with the Open Schools Coding Competition. The competition would see groups of four children design and develop an app using a free visual programming environment for a charity of their choice, with participating schools selecting their best two or three projects for a grand finale.
The aim was to inspire pupils about what computing can achieve beyond the classroom to have a real-world impact, to show kids that coding is fun and help them see the power in open collaboration.
The Open Schools Coding Competition was a natural fit as Red Hat already runs community initiatives such as CO.LAB, which introduces middle school age girls to the principles of open source and open collaboration with a combination of poetry, photography, circuit boards and computer programming, as part of Red Hat’s commitment to educating and empowering the next generation of open source leaders. Last year in close collaboration with Lord Wandsworth College we ran a pilot of the Open Schools Coding Competition with five schools. From those schools we had eight teams of four pupils, who all used Scratch or other open source programs to code. This year nine schools and approximately 100 students took part, in addition to 18 Red Hatters, and the University of Surrey, who hosted the final event.
As part of our collaboration with the competition, we were called upon to supply technical expertise during the judging phase, which included Red Hatters Greg Cooper, head of Solution Architects for EMEA, Tracy Corkett, head of EMEA Services Delivery, Gareth James, associate service delivery manager and Katrina Novakovic, senior customer success manager.
During finalist day it was amazing to see how creative the children were. The apps had been designed with the charities’ objectives in mind, guiding users to take actions a charity would want, for example having the apps link directly to the donations pages. There was a business-like approach, which was impressive to see from 11-14 year olds.
The children had the opportunity to go around and check out the other schools’ apps, and we encouraged them to be collaborative - to ask questions and provide constructive feedback to each other - rewarding inventive questions with stickers and frisbees. We also ran a panel discussion on the day for the pupils to learn more about the Red Hatters and their journey from school to career, what they love about coding, what professional options coding opens up and what it's like to work in an open source company like Red Hat. Stella Kazamia, a teaching fellow at the Department of Computer Science at the University of Surrey gave a short lecture that she runs for all new undergraduate intakes - including a ‘sketch your neighbour’s face’ icebreaker that our Open Innovation Labs team uses with our own customers - the kids seemed to love it!
After a sunny lunch on the lawn, everyone was brought back in for the judges’ verdict and to announce the winners. With much deliberation over the variety of fantastic entries, the judges announced the winning group - an all-girl team named Ctrl Alt Elite!
The Ctrl Alt Elite team from Bristol Grammar School dedicated their app to the Children’s World charity, which aims to foster creative play and work in educational settings, promoting social and emotional benefits for disadvantaged children. The app included a fundraising tracker where people could donate, as well as general information about Children’s World’s aims and a pong game.
The judges were impressed with the team’s polished, multifaceted app, and appreciated the thorough documentation provided on the creation of the app on the back-end. The team also demonstrated strong collaboration skills, working together to decide who would take on which tasks based on the unique strengths of each team member.
In their own words, Ctrl Alt Delete told us, "The Open Schools Coding Competition has given us the opportunity to realise that coding is so much more than just sitting at a computer and typing out code, coding is collaboration between people working together to achieve an end product that everyone can be proud of. This certainly was the case with the development of our Children’s World charity app which challenged us to explore different roles and skills related to coding."
A key takeaway from the competition for us as a business was just how much this connected to the Red Hat culture. The team of us who took part all felt truly inspired by the children’s energy and enthusiasm for open collaboration. Many of the pupils expressed how much fun they had working together as a team. The coding competition helped the children realise they could achieve better and more creative applications by bringing together everyone’s diverse ideas and strengths, recognising the importance of skills like research and design as well as programming itself. Understanding the value that diversity brings to a team can help set them up for success in the working world, which is increasingly waking up to the worth of creativity within the sciences, leading to the extension of the term STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) to STEAM (A for arts). Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk on creativity in education has now had more than 52 million views.
I had several inspirational conversations with the children at the competition finals. One that sticks in my mind was a pupil who mentioned that she’d never programmed before, and in learning how to do it she realised it was something she could do and have fun doing, which consequently left her wanting to do more.
It is great to know that we are helping to encourage collaboration, openness and creativity, and inspiring the next generation of coders to combine passion and interest and produce something that can make a real difference in the world.
Bring on the Open Schools Coding Competition 2019!
Hayley Wienszczak is manager, Strategic Partner Projects EMEA at Red Hat