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Speaking in code: Kids in Singapore are learning a new language

As Singapore works toward becoming a Smart Nation, parents here are increasingly warming up to the idea of exposing their children to pick up coding and computational thinking skills. But how young is too young?

SINGAPORE: Eight-year-old Gareth Koh lounged on the sofa, waiting patiently for his robotics lesson. His father Kevin Koh, dressed in weekend casuals, sat with his son as the pair took in the comings and goings at Nullspace, an educational outfit focusing on robotics and computational thinking.

It was Gareth’s first lesson, and the pair were there at Nullspace's headquarters on the refurbished grounds of the old Bukit Timah Fire Station despite the fact that it was the first weekend of the Chinese New Year festive period.

Mr Koh, a civil servant with the Ministry of Defence, shared that his son has “always been interested in Lego and robotics” and that Gareth signing up for the course was mostly his idea. The Primary 3 student had just joined his school’s robotics Co-Curricular Activity (CCA) group, and the enrichment class was an extension of his interest, said Mr Koh.

The course spans four sessions and costs about S$300 according to Mr Koh, who said he hoped his son would gain “exposure and self-achievement” from the class. 

“It would be some use to him in the future, hopefully,” he said, adding that he views coding as a “life skill”.


Nullspace Tech Director Alan Yong conducting a class at the National Design Centre. (Photo: Nullspace/Facebook)

This sentiment was echoed by another parent, Ms Tan Lay Fang, whose son Lucas Yang is also in Primary 3. Her son has been attending robotics classes offered by his school since Primary 2, which has exposed him to the basics of computer programming and taught him to solve problems by studying all possibilities. She had also enrolled her son for classes outside school to hone his skills and further develop his interest in the area.

Ms Tan, who works in the banking industry, said while technology is pervasive and kids today know how to use it, they “rarely know how it works”.

“Learning to code will enable Lucas to better understand the changing world that is becoming increasingly digital, improve on his thinking skills and apply the concepts to solve problems in a dynamic way,” she said. “I believe that learning computer language will open doors to a host of opportunities for him in the future, regardless of his career path.” 

CASHING IN ON SINGAPORE’S DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION

The growing awareness and importance attached to coding and computational thinking by parents here are not lost on education providers. Seen in context of the nation’s Smart Nation vision, which aims to “harness technology to the fullest with the aim of improving the lives of citizens, creating more opportunities, and building stronger communities”, learning such coding skills would appear to be more out of necessity than a sense of curiosity.

In fact, Foreign Minister and Minister-in-charge of Smart Nation Programme Office (SNPO) Vivian Balakrishnan went one step further to describe the vision’s ideal: One where citizens are active co-creators and problem-solvers, rather than passively waiting on the Government to solve every real-life problem.  


PM Lee Hsien Loong chatting with Singaporeans working at Google in San Francisco. (Photo: Kenji Soon/MCI)

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, during his recent trip to the United States, also reiterated the need to change the perceptions related to engineering and engineers. He noted that in Silicon Valley, engineering is at the core of many businesses; in Singapore, the profession is seen more as a support function.

The city-state’s digital push is why Nullspace, for one, has seen an increase both in terms of revenue and student sign-ups. According to Mr Alan Yong, the company's Technology Director, its revenue between 2014 and 2015 has gone up 100 per cent, of which 35 per cent is “directly attributable to Infocomm Development Authority (IDA)- related school training programmes”. The number of school clients had doubled from 9 in 2014 to 18 a year later, he shared.

An enrichment programme by IDA and the Ministry of Education, Code for Fun, currently has 107 schools, up from 24 when it was piloted in 2014. The initiative allows schools to plan and run a 20-hour programming training over 2 years using a visual, drag and drop software with robotic kits and microcontroller kits for primary and secondary schools, respectively.

As for Nullspace's enrichment centre, C4RL (Centre for Robotics Learning), Mr Yong revealed that its revenue has gone up 150 per cent between the same period of time, which “roughly corresponds” to a 100 per cent increase in student sign-ups. There were 200 new student enrolments last year, compared with 100 the year earlier.

BRIDGING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

Mr Yong shed more light on the company’s growth, saying that there is a “changing mindset” on the importance of technology and coding, particularly among young parents whom he deemed as the “first generation to really get exposed to tech”.

“These parents are definitely more supportive, as they see computational thinking and coding as more like a life skill,” he said.

Another company looking to capitalise on the nation’s Smart Nation push is Jules Ventures. The start-up launched its first product, School of Fish, for pre-school children in kindergarten this month. Founder Jonathan Chan told Channel NewsAsia that he hopes to fill a niche with his product, as most of the focus on coding and computational thinking is currently being focused on older children, particularly at the tertiary level.

Mr Chan noted that in order to fully capitalise on the benefits of Smart Nation, where most if not all Government services will be offered online, there must be an effort to “enable the consumers (for these services) of tomorrow”. The company defines computational thinking as “the ability to integrate human creativity and insight with machine computing power”.

He added that by targeting its product for pre-schoolers, such as those in Kindergarten 1 and 2, he hoped that it would be the “great equaliser” cutting across all demographic to ensure every child is “digitally fluent”.

“Why should those who have the means to send their children for enrichment class have a leg up? Every child should have the opportunity to bridge the digital divide,” he said.

School of Fish will be adopted by two pre-schools for a 26-week-long trial, and Jules Ventures, which was formed in 2014, hoped to use this period to iron out the kinks and see how its curriculum could be better delivered, the company said. Mr Chan added he is also in talks with SNPO to explore the possibility of bringing its programme to more pre-schools in Singapore.

HOW YOUNG IS TOO YOUNG?

One of the schools participating in the trial with Jules Ventures is Carpe Diem, which runs two pre-schools in Singapore. Director Tan Sok Khim shared that the school found Jules’ School of Fish curriculum “interesting” and in line with one of its core teaching philosophy - to inculcate logical thinking.

Technology is starting to become “part and parcel” of our everyday lives, and while it used to be just those in the workforce and tertiary institutions who had to contend with it, the age “has gone down even earlier”. “My son, who just entered Primary 1, already has to do his homework online,” she said.

This need to prepare its young charges to technology is why the school decided to give School of Fish a try. “Its curriculum is in a packaged form, and formalised the idea and thinking behind computational thinking,” Ms Tan said.


Carpe Diem Kids Academy is taking steps to ensure its young charges are exposed to tech, as well as the great outdoors, said Director Tan Sok Khim.

However, the school is also taking steps to balance the need for exposure to technology with other facets of learning too. The director said School of Fish will be offered twice a week in lessons not longer than 30 minutes to 45 minutes, and this will only be for children between 5 and 6 years old. Parents will also have the option of extending the curriculum at home.

Asked if there should be an age limit to the exposure to computational thinking and tech in general, Ms Tan believes there is. “We feel that the program is not suitable for those 3 or 4 years old, as they might not fully understand. On the other hand, the older children can understand instructions and dos and don’ts.”

Nullspace’s Mr Yong also believes that children who are too young will not benefit from the early exposure to computational thinking. “For kids aged 6 and below, I think such classes might not have real impact as their mental faculties are not fully developed yet.

“It might make them more comfortable in thinking in a logical framework, but for most kids, it will take several years before their minds can appreciate the various programming constructs and idiosyncrasies.”