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Canadian schools starting to teach computer coding to kids

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TORONTO - It's still small, but there's a movement afoot to teach coding to Canadian kids at school.

Given the increasingly important role that technology is playing in today's culture, business and everyday life, children should be exposed to computer tools as soon as possible, according to Leroy Vincent, a technology and art specialist at the River Valley Middle School in Grand Bay-Westfield, N.B.

The school is featured in an upcoming documentary called "Code Kids," about a push to implement technology training in grade schools throughout the Maritimes.

At River Valley, Vincent made it his mission to have every one of the school's 340-odd Grade 6 through Grade 8 kids exposed to computer programming.

"Everything in the world now is computers and everything is programming. I'm not saying every kid is going to be a programmer, don't get me wrong, but every kid has got to be exposed to it," says Vincent.

"We want to make sure every kid understands what it is and if they understand what it is they'll know whether they're interested or not."

Real programming languages are far beyond the grasp of most grade schoolers but Vincent has introduced his students to a language called Scratch, developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Scratch is capable of creating interactive stories and games and has a user-friendly drag and drop interface that makes programming less intimidating and easier to learn.

"It's a very highly successful introduction (to programming)," Vincent says. "The kids found immediate success from it so it hooked them very quickly."

In Ottawa, a program called TechU.me is pairing Grade 10 students with Grade 3 kids in a project to have them all learn more about coding. The younger kids come up with an app concept based on a subject they're currently learning about in class, and the older students bring that idea to life.

"The apps are basic but what we like to say is that the app is not the end goal, it's the process of creating the app that really is the biggest lesson for the students involved," says program manager Maria Smirnoff.

"They're using apps like 'Angry Birds' or 'Bejeweled' but they don't understand the process that goes behind making it."

Smirnoff says the project, which started in four schools and is now in 55, was designed to encourage technology education at a time when it was being forgotten, in the aftermath of Nortel's collapse.

"Parents who were impacted by the Nortel — I'll say disaster for a lack of a better term — were actually discouraging their own children from pursuing a technology career and telling them to do anything but," she recalls.

A program similar to TechU.me is now being launched in Waterloo, Ont., and Smirnoff hopes the idea will spread further.

"We show (educators) the linkages, how these projects actually meet and exceed every curriculum outcome they're mandated to teach," she says.

"Sometimes it requires a little more hand-holding but in other cases the teachers are so enthused by the opportunity to have their kids do something so exciting and authentic and genuine that it's really a no brainer."

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