Claude Terosier, an engineer by training, is the founder of Magic Makers, a startup that organises creative programming workshops for children. Since 2014, over 2,000 children have familiarised themselves with “computer thinking” and learnt to program their own games or design connected devices.
In the next academic year, schoolteachers in France will also be able to benefit from Magic Makers’ innovative teaching methods. With Class’Code, a project dreamed up with a number of partners, the startup intends to share the expertise developed in its workshops and help teachers teach code themselves: computer programming will be introduced into the French school curriculum in September 2016.
So why is it so important to teach code to kids? What sort of tools can make it easier for them to learn? How did the startup manage to break into the education ecosystem? We talked to Claude Terosier…
How did the Magic Makers project come about?
The project was launched in 2014, but the idea for Magic Makers started back in 2012. When my son was eight, I realised what a discrepancy there was between the importance of IT in today’s world, where a number of areas rely on programs and algorithms, and its role in education. I looked for code workshops for children but couldn’t find any … So that’s when I thought of setting up Magic Makers.
“IT is a fairly recent discipline. In 2012, we didn’t have much perspective where teaching is concerned. And yet there’s absolutely no reason why children can’t code, and can enjoy it. The thing is how to get them interested in it.”
Magic Makers currently organises weekly workshops all-year-long for children aged eight upwards (and soon from age six). They learn how to program by creating their own games. We also run themed courses in the school holidays.
“Children come and learn coding for an hour and a half a week, just like they might have sport or music.”
We have around ten full-time employees and we also have around fifteen part-time staff, students we train to run the workshops. We recently teamed up with Econocom but we’d already been working with them for a few months.
“Small companies which are growing need help to expand effectively and intelligently. Econocom supplied us with equipment, which is really important because it means we can focus on our added value.”
LEARNING code CAN BE FUN!
How do you teach programming to young children?
Our approach is very fun. The children work on little projects that help them grasp the basics of programming: what’s a condition? How do you design an algorithm?
We start by doing very simple animations, for example, moving cubes and coloured circles randomly to make a digital artistic creation. To do this, the kids have to understand the concept of loops, by repeating commands over and over in order to change the colour or shape of the elements.
We also help them make up stories and games and that helps them familiarise themselves with the concepts of synchronisation (e.g. in what order should we get the characters to speak?) and conditions (e.g. if I touch the apple I win a point).
In addition to the weekly workshops, we also organise courses during the school holidays where kids learn how to make connected devices. The younger ones learn to program little building blocks, rather like Lego, combined with engines and sensors so they can make a little motorised car that can detect walls and stop when it gets near one. The older kids, meanwhile, can try their hand at electronics.
UNDERSTANDING COMPUTER LOGIC
We mostly use free tools that are available online. With the youngest children, we start with a visual programming language whereby they can put building blocks together with their mouse, without having to enter commands.
From the age of eight, kids can learn with Scratch, a software program developed by the MIT Media Lab. As it was developed by educational science researchers and not computer programmers, it’s very effective for teaching children how to think.
“The idea is not to learn a language, but understand the logic of programming and algorithms. Once they grasp these concepts, it’s much easier to learn a language.”
We also have tools that let you program objects, such as Arduino, an open-source electronic prototyping platform.
“We make the most of tools that are already being used by communities. What we develop in-house are teaching methods to help the kids.”
Why do parents send their children to you?
Parents who sign their kids up for our workshops share our vision. They know that learning to code is the key to creating the super-powerful machines that computers are.
“In an age when every aspect of human endeavour relies on IT, knowing how to program is very useful. When launching a project, for example, you have to be able to communicate on the Internet, which means setting up a website or, at the very least, being able to communicate effectively with the service provider who will do it.”
The skills children learn in our workshops go beyond technical stuff and coding: they learn how to run a project from start to finish, how to find solutions to problems, work as a team – all of which are essential skills for working in any kind of company or organisation these days.
One last reason, which is just as important, is that our workshops are fun and parents know their kids are going to enjoy themselves!
Class’code: TEACHING TEACHERS TO TEACH CODE
So with project Class’Code, you work with teachers?
After running over fifty workshops a week in Paris and around twenty courses every school holiday, at Magic Makers we can now develop and implement innovative teaching methods. But even though we teach code to a lot of children, we’re still only reaching families who are aware of what we’re doing, who can afford to send their children to us and can get to our offices easily.
Whereas we felt it was important to reach a much wider audience with our teaching. That’s exactly what Class’Code does. It’s an investment project for the future sponsored by the Caisse des Depots, a public financial institution, and created via a partnership with INRIA,
Open classrooms, various regional councils, teaching network Canopé and IT professionals.
“Class’Code’s ambition is to offer teachers hybrid training: most of it is online, via the OpenClassrooms platform, but there are also some classroom-based lessons. These are education professionals who are used to working with kids, but they don’t know how to program and don’t yet feel able to teach it to children.”
It’s our job to show the teachers that they can program (using tools like Scratch), to give them a grounding in IT and give them an idea of the bigger picture and look at the social implications, for example, the use of personal data. Another part of the project involves sharing the teaching resources with teachers and helping them acquire the skills they need so they can pass them on to children whilst adapting them to their own expertise.
The reason we run hybrid training is that we also want teachers to get together locally to follow the courses together, and thus set up teaching communities. These local communities will eventually build up their expertise in teaching code.
GETTING INTO THE education ecosystem
The project is totally free and will officially start at the beginning of the 2016 academic year, to tie in with the introduction of code to the French national curriculum. Before that, in April, we’ll be running our first pilot project. We have high hopes for this, because it will mean we can see how well the teachers have grasped the content of our courses and see how we can improve our online training courses. So far, a lot of teachers are interested: even government school inspectors writing a report on introducing code to the school curriculum for the Ministry of Education have come to our workshops for inspiration
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