Schools must create tech leaders of the future

Whether it’s teaching Lego robots how to play lawn bowls, using virtual reality to teach geography or setting up dedicated tech innovation departments, experts says AI and emerging technologies must find a place in the school curriculum.

A Department of Education research report into artificial intelligence and emerging technologies in schools says that AI in school education is still in the early stages of development and educators need to develop “foundational knowledge of learning about and with AI  in order to empower students to thrive in an AI world.”

The report, authored by a group of Newcastle researchers, urges teachers to harness AI and emerging technologies to enhance educational outcomes, and looks at some inititatives that are already taking place.

Among the case studies is Ravenswood School for girls in Sydney, which has introduced AI to year 6 students via a project in which students taught a Lego robot to play lawn bowls. The task helped teach students about translating the meaning and logic of a task into computer code, teacher Matthew Scadding said.

Meanwhile, Toongabbie Christian College Year 9 Geography students created a plan for a sustainable Australian city or suburb and presented their plans through VR using a program called Story Spheres offered by Google in early 2017.

Callaghan College has partnered with the University of Newcastle in a world first project embedding highly immersive VR, in this case networked Oculus Rifts, in high school classrooms in a curriculum-aligned way,  and year 11 students at Dungog High School are using VR to create a directors folio for a contemporary Australian play.

Mossman state high school in far north Queensland is also working to increase digital capability in the community and has developed a research project with the Australian Curriculum Assessment Authority (ACARA) which is currently being implemented and includes a range of projects including the creation of an induction app for new students.

Future-proofing students

Located in the centre of Australia’s capital, Canberra Grammar School is one of few schools in Australia to have a dedicated Department of Tech Innovation.

Matthew Purcell

The school’s unique approach to learning has been so successful that almost every year its leading students get sent to the Silicon Valley on scholarships.

The department, spearheaded by the school’s Head of Digital Innovation Matthew Purcell, was created twelve years ago to teach students the skills needed to thrive in the jobs of the future.

With 30 per cent of 60 per cent of all occupations set to be automated, more and more jobs are set to require tech-related skills, according to McKinsey Institute, meaning that demand for tech knowledge is greater than ever.

Recognising the growing number of jobs in tech and the need for digital literacy, in 2007 Mr Purcell, who was then the Manager of IT, introduced the department in a bid to equip students with an increasingly in-demand skill set.

“Regardless of where the students go – whether it’s software development, agriculture or medicine, these jobs also involve tech. It’s now very hard to find an industry that doesn’t so it’s extremely important to make student students are completely digitally literate,” he told Government News at Amazon Web Service’s Public Sector Summit in Canberra this month.

Too often there is a misconception that students are digitally literate because of the ubiquity of mobile devices– but this assumption is grossly wrong, Mr Purcell says.

“It might be the case they know how to use technology at that level but it’s a very superficial level and it doesn’t necessarily translate to a student knowing how to use technology effectively. What we’re trying to do is teach students effect use of technology so it can be used in any career in future”

While many schools teach elements of tech in their curriculum, most schools don’t have dedicated departments of technology, Mr Purcell says.

“Not may schools have this position and many don’t have department dedicated to digital technology or computing, it’s often integrated into D&T or computing, or this nebulous idea that it’s integrated into all subjects at school.”

The school’s year 10 students  showcased their skills at a workshop at the summit, programming a mini robot to navigate a maze – a task that Canberra Grammar year 10 student Alex Cresswell loved.

“It’s been good to see how stuff in school comes across to real-world experience like working in teams, coding and you can see how the stuff you are doing in school translates to real-world jobs,” the 15-year-old said.

Engaging students with workshops like this is all about teaching students about the skills they need for the jobs of tomorrow, says Ben Thurgood, head of solutions architecture in NSW and Queensland at Amazon Web Services.

“It’s all about inspiring young minds with disruptive technology that’s going to influence the way we live and work today and in the future.”

Canberra Grammar’s tech training has paid off, with last year’s graduates all going on to study some form of computing in university and the students taking out top gongs at competitions.

The success of the program is a case in point of the value of teaching students tech-oriented subjects and illustrates the need for more schools to do the same, says Mr Purcell.

“Back in the 90’s everyone wanted to be a rock star – now everyone wants to be  developer. So it’s about making sure you have a culture of innovation.”

Paul Oppenheimer, CIO of RMIT University agrees there’s value in requiring schools to teach more tech subjects.

“From my perspective and with what’s happening out there, I would encourage kids to explore those aspects,” he told Government News.

Mr Oppenheimer says that as more traditional work is phased out, governments should consider mandating tech and analytical thinking modules into the curriculum – a move that he says would help tackle the tech skills shortage.

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