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Duru Uluk, 13 and a Grade 8 student, attends a weekly after-school program at the University of Waterloo for elementary and secondary students to build and program computerized Lego robots. She tests her robotic vehicle with program supervisor Martin Scherer, right. (Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail)
Duru Uluk, 13 and a Grade 8 student, attends a weekly after-school program at the University of Waterloo for elementary and secondary students to build and program computerized Lego robots. She tests her robotic vehicle with program supervisor Martin Scherer, right. (Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail)

INNOVATION IN EDUCATION

Why tech giants are investing in STEM programs for students Add to ...

At 13, Duru Uluk thinks she might become a lawyer, an entrepreneur or a future minister of defence.

Whatever her career, she knows she needs computer science to get there.

“In the future, everyone is going to be coding,” says the Grade 8 student, who attends a weekly after-school program at the University of Waterloo for elementary and secondary students to build and program computerized Lego robots. “Computers are everywhere.”

Her observation explains the drive by technology companies to work with schools and non-profit organizations to promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to students at an early age.

Earlier this month, Google Canada donated $1.5-million to Actua, a national network of colleges and universities that delivers STEM programming (including the Waterloo program) to more than 225,000 young people. Over the next three years, Actua’s Google-funded Codemakers project will offer hands-on computer science experiences, including fundamentals of coding, to more than 100,000 students in workshops and camps.

As network technology provider for the 2015 Toronto Pan Am games, Cisco Canada has developed a program for its computer engineers to mentor more than 400 high school and postsecondary students assigned to work alongside them for the athletic event.

Meanwhile, Microsoft Canada supports STEM education through its partnerships with youth-focused non-profits to teach free courses in code-making and games, expanding the company’s annual support which includes free software for other non-profits of more than $45-million.

The corporate initiatives come as Canadian public schools struggle to equip students and teachers to harness technology as a tool of learning. A 2013 report by science outreach charity Let’s Talk Science found that less than half of Canadian high school students graduate with senior STEM courses, although 70 per cent of top jobs require expertise in science, technology, engineering and math.

In New Brunswick, the new Liberal government has promised a 10-year education plan built on improved literacy, enhanced STEM-related courses and early adoption of learning and teaching technologies, including coding.

“The economies that are doing well when it comes to STEM learning are the ones that seem to be performing on an economic scale as well,” Premier Brian Gallant says in an interview. “Coding and understanding of technology is the next phase of important educational skill sets. We want to teach kids so they are not only comfortable using technology, they will be comfortable creating technology.”

Often, Canadian parents are forced to look beyond school for coding experiences for their children.

Last year, the Mississauga, Ont., parents of Michael Pawlyshyn, 9, enrolled their son in a summer camp at the University of Toronto, which is an Actua member, where he learned coding to build a catapult and other devices. “It opened my eyes to science and how to build things,” says Michael.

“We are going to fall behind not only as a school and a nation if we don’t get on board and have some sort of blanket coverage to allow our children access to the technology they need on a daily basis,” says his father, Marc Pawlyshyn.

Of late, several corporate leaders have made it their mission to boost the computer literacy of students.

“Software engineering skills is a tool and understanding hardware electronics, understanding math and how the world is assembled helps you solve problems,” says Steven Woods, engineering director at Google Canada. “We need better educational tools to engage kids in science, technology, engineering and math.”

At Waterloo’s after-school program, the focus is on fun and learning. Program teacher Patrick Laflamme, a third-year Waterloo biomedicine and psychology major, explains a little theory to Duru and 17 other Grade 7 and 8 students before they rifle through kits to select parts for a Lego robot of their design. Then students program their robots to go around, over or through – their choice – a cardboard box.

Overseeing the program is Martin Scherer, manager of outreach activities for Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering, which runs this and other Engineering Science Quest youth projects with the Faculty of Science. “I want these kids to have a better understanding of computer science and how it is all around them, and not to be scared with tinkering with a computer or doing more than surf the Web,” he says.

Breaking down stereotypes about technology as “just a geeky thing” is essential, says Jeff Seifert, chief technology officer for Cisco Canada. “You can be a hard-core technology person and have fantastic opportunities,” he says. “There is [also] a second layer where having that technology knowledge and knowing how to apply it to a business … becomes a huge asset that would set you apart from others.”

A changing world of work using robotics and data analytics adds to the imperative for tech-savvy graduates, says Elyse Allan, president and CEO of GE Canada. “It is important to engage the kids early because we want to make sure that as they go through school they are motivated to take the courses they need, to have the skills and educational background to data and science and those kinds of technology jobs,” she says.

Support for teachers, she adds, is crucial. “The kids are actually ahead of the adults in terms of understanding some of this stuff,” she says.

Lia De Cicco-Remu, director of Partners in Learning at Microsoft Canada, says “teachers need to be schooled as well” to make the curriculum relevant to learners.

Among its school-related programs, Microsoft offers an “expert educator” network for teachers to adapt technology to the classroom. With Microsoft expanding teacher access to free software, Ms. De Cicco-Remu says, “you have to show them how to use it pedagogically.”

Back at Waterloo, Duru reflects on the value of learning to build and program robots. “They are not just games, there is software behind them,” she says. “To be good in life and to do a good job, you are going to have to know these things eventually.”

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