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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

To Get Kids Coding, Countries Should Follow Estonia's Programming Tigers

Yesterday the video below was floating around the web, with tech, sports, and music giants talking about how and why they got into programming, with the goal of motivating kids to open up their favorite text editor and saying hello to the world. But in Estonia, this dream shared by Zuck, Gates, and Will-i-am already exists. An initiative called ProgeTiiger (or Programming Tiger) has been taking programming curriculum into Estonian schools, reaching children as young as kindergarten with basic programming and robotics. The goal is to continue Estonia’s dominance when it comes to technology, programming, and the e-estonia initiative.

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“If you read the articles about Estonia, yes, we have lots of startups per capita, but we need more working hands and we have to change the attitude towards technology,” says Ave Lauringson, Product Manager of ProgeTiiger.

ProgeTiiger is part of a larger initiative by the Estonian government, called the Tiger Leap Foundation, which was founded in 1997 with the goal of bringing internet connectivity into the classrooms. Since then, it has spread naturally into providing other technological support, like computers, smart boards, and so on. Then once there was all this equipment in place, the Tiger Leap foundation began providing training and materials to teachers to help take advantage of the hardware.

In January of 2012 the ProgeTiiger initiative was started, and they knew they wanted to bring programming in classrooms to help raise Estonia’s technical competency, but they weren’t quite sure how it should work. Estonia’s national curriculum was updated in 2011 with an optional course at the secondary school level for programming and web applications, so they initially thought they would help support this secondary school level. ProgeTiiger project manager Ave Lauringson pulled in some tech experts to discuss their strategy, they learned that they should start at a much younger age – they should be targeting at least basic school, if not elementary school students.

So in the past year they started with an overview gathering information and materials, and putting together packages for each grade. If you speak Estonian, you can find these materials on their website for free, and the project is currently being demoed for feedback in 22 schools.

When asked how they got normal teachers to teach programming, Lauringson laughed and responded, “I don’t know, because we didn’t train them.” But the Tiger Leap foundation has already built a solid base for programming instruction. The foundation has launched a number of ICT courses for teachers, broken into subjects like math, physics, and chemistry, as well as a number of ICT training courses for informatics teachers and computer courses.

“[Some may say] the the curriculum is so overloaded that you’re crazy to put coding in it. But we do have the extra course for secondary school that is already in the national curriculum. What we first respond to that is that our materials are optional – schools can choose how, when, and what to use them.”

So rather forcing schools to designate time-blocks for programming, they’re sneaking in through other subjects. Kids even at the age of seven are already taking basic computer classes in Estonia, and they’re learning things like Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. But what interest does a seven year-old have for PowerPoint? But if they’re sitting down in front of the same computer and learning how to program their own basic game, for example, then the subject becomes more interesting to him or her.

Robotics is also a big focus of the available programming curriculum because Estonia is lucky to already have robotics hardware in some schools. A NGO has been supplying robotics equipment to school’s hobby clubs, and so far they have 120 schools with access to robotics materials.

Next Saturday there will be the Estonian First LEGO League competition, where 20 of the 60 Estonian teams will compete against each other in the finals using LEGO robotics, and then move on to international levels of competition. This year’s topic is Senior Solutions, so they have to think of ways technology can make senior’s lives easier. Last year Estonia won silver in the European finals in one area, and Lauringson is confident they’ll be bringing home more medals this year.

Another impressive fact is that these robotics clubs expanded into kindergarten last month. “We first thought the competition would be good from 6th grades and up. But then we saw grades 2, 3, and 4 for example doing lego robotics. We find it’s quite complex, but they have very good ideas,” says Lauringson.

Leng Lee of CodeAcademey was recently visiting Estonia, and spoke with the ProgeTiiger team about collaboration and perhaps localizing CodeAcademy in Estonian. Online resources are making it easier and easier to teach yourself how to code, but will more countries follow Estonia’s goals of reaching even kindergarten students? They would be wise to.

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