Harnessing the Past to Build the Future: Inspiring a Nation of Coders
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Scotland is experiencing a crisis of student enrollment numbers into Computer Science, and as a core skill central to our digital nation ambition it’s critical we explore how we might address and reverse this trend.
500 years ago when I were high school lad, and our “computing lab” was six BBC Micros, I wrote a game called “Laser Battle” – Two wee men chasing around the screen and zapping each other. The Call of Duty of it’s day!
Our “Computer Science instructor” was a Maths teacher, because they figured that was the closest subject to computers they could muster. Needless to say the poor chap knew absolutely nothing about computing and had been given zero curriculum materials so he used my game to teach the other students.
Like thousands of others I had been bought a ZX Spectrum for one early 80’s Christmas, and had taught myself how to code on it.
I also wrote a fruit machine game that I charged my friends to play, so clearly it marked the genesis of my tech entrepreneur career. Since then I’ve gone on to launch venture capital-funded Cloud computing startups, and my technical ability, started on the ZX Spectrum, has always been my primary foundation for that career.
Dan Whitehead documented this nationwide boom of home computing, chronicling how it paved the way for a British revolution in tech skills, building a Speccy Nation.
Scotland even has a history with the ZX Spectrum, indeed one that is pivotal to the success of it’s flagship tech industry: Game development.
Abertay University showcased the history of how the Timex factory in Dundee manufactured the Spectrums, shared in this video, and as the BBC and Natwest describe this laid the foundations for an evolution that led to the Dundee region becoming a global powerhouse that produced entrepreneurs including Chris van der Kuyl, co-founder and chairman of 4J Studios famous for the global phenomenon Minecraft, and titles including Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto.
From Code Club to CodeClan
So what is the modern equivalent, how can we replicate such an impactful phenomena and harness it to reverse the tide of declining Computer Science education in Scotland?
The Code Show is seeking to tap this nostalgia to do so. Literally, they have a bank of over 300 vintage machines including ZX Spectrums, BBC Micros and Commodore 64s, and travel the country setting these up in schools to inspire the children through exposing them to the history of the UK computing industry.
This sets the scene for the most important of initiatives: Coding Clubs. In Scotland there are organizations like Code Club Scotland, and as Mike Dailly, creator of Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto, shared in a tweet, these clubs provide the very first step that began his computing career. With schools challenged in terms of teaching resources these can bridge that gap.
What of the technology, what is the modern day ZX Spectrum?
Key tools include Replit, an online coding environment where you can start coding instantly right from your browser. As Mindjoy highlight below they encourage the critical dynamic of code written by kids being used to teach other kids, like my childhood story. Of course I doubt their games will be as awesome as Laser Battle but I’m sure they’re pretty good, and most importantly they enable learning through sharing of best practices.
From writing ZX Spectrum games I went on to study Computer Science at Edinburgh University and then a tech entrepreneur career, and with organizations like CodeClan enabling a transition into employment in the business world for software developers, it’s clear Scotland has most of the pieces to define an end-to-end computing learning and career journey for students.
The missing piece is the most important one – How do we inspire children to take their very first step into that career?
For student Aiden, coding is a hobby and a passion! Watch him explain @Replit – the platform which we use for our sessions! With our projects and his passion, he has taught himself how to code a few different games!@geekc0der we think he has a bright future ahead of him! pic.twitter.com/fVry4Lwa0D
— Mindjoy (@TeamMindjoy) November 8, 2021