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*OPINION: Our Kids: The Future of Tech

This opinion piece is from T.J. Kinion, program manager at LearningFuze.

While I don’t have any kids yet, I hope they will be just as fascinated and appreciative of technology as I am. If they are so inclined, I look forward to them learning about bringing their ideas to life through code in a program like AppJam+ or from someone with the patience of Cody Miller, here at LearningFuze.

I hope they will see AI as a tool to increase productivity and less of a threat to humanity. Most importantly I want them to use it for good rather than things like Cambridge Analytica, China’s “social credit system”, or the daily abuse of robo-callers. As a millennial, many assume that my life has been engulfed in technology, but it will pale in comparison to the world my kids grow up in so I’ve begun thinking about how to prepare them for that and so should you.

No one denies that computer programming will be a necessary skill in tomorrow’s workforce but unfortunately many people still think a Computer Science degree is the only way to get there. Whether it’s parents trying to find coding bootcamps for kids or teenagers that are playing Fortnite and thinking, “I wonder how this was made”, at one time or another it’s likely to cross you or your child’s mind. Over the past few weeks I’ve met with Dreams for Schools, participated in the Irvine Chamber of Commerce’s Career Edge Program, and just recently spoke to young adults at the Joplin Youth Center. The interest in coding is there but the resources can still be tough to find; whether you are tech savvy or not the best, and usually easiest, way to prepare you kids for this new tech-centric world is outside of the home.

A kids coding program in our backyard, and school system!

For parents that are wondering if their kids can learn programming skills while still in school look no further than Dreams for Schools the AppJam+ program. I was first introduced to Dreams for Schools by John Hobson of CIELO but didn’t get to know Nithin Jilla and his team until joining the Forge54 board. Since 2012 Nithin has built Dreams for Schools and the AppJam+ program from 2 middle schools to over 40+ middle schools and 76 AppJam+ programs. Many local schools have access to technology but no one trained in how to teach it. AppJam+ is a program that takes those unused resources and partners them with a top-notch curriculum that is taught by local college mentors. Summer coding bootcamps exist, but if your kids can be introduced to coding as part of their public (free) education wouldn’t you want to start there?

There’s a good chance your school district already has a partnership with Dreams for Schools, but if they don’t simply get in touch with your administration or Nithin to get that process going. Be careful of other programs as there are quite a few out there and many are still not regulated. Just as we suggest people do a campus visit, meet instructors, and talk to alumni before coming to LearningFuze you and your child should do the same with any kids coding camps. We are proud to support such a great local program and know that there are probably many more out there with a similar mission but considering this may be your child’s first dip into the world of code it’s important that it’s a good experience. Unfortunately my first experience learning to play the guitar focused more on how to properly hold and what each part was called, neither of which impressed any girls like my friends who could actually play some chords.

Coding is great but without critical thinking and problem solving, you won’t get very far

In addition to non-profits like Dreams for Schools, the Irvine Chamber of Commerce is also helping expose youth to the skills of tomorrow. On February 2nd I was fortunate enough to participate in the Career Edge workshop led by Dr Brian Dozier. During the workshop we led local high school and college students through exercises in critical thinking, problem solving, and business ethics. Whether you want to be successful in business or a really good computer programmer the ability to think critically and problem solve is imperative. In both our Full Immersion and Part Time programs students are faced with questions that don’t have an easy answer and thus they need to think critically about how to move forward. When coding you are constantly running into challenges that you’ve never seen before and your problem-solving skills need to kick in.

Without ethics and morals technology quickly becomes a tool for evil; as I mentioned earlier we need look no further than Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. As we speak Machine Learning and AI are being applied to just about every industry and quite often they are having profound impacts on our productivity. What many people may not realize is while we are trying to automate decisions and remove bias from these areas it can be much harder than you think. Relying on old data or forgetting that the people creating these deep neural networks may have biases of their own will just lead to AI that eventually reflects any currently existing biases.

Encouraging kids to think critically, enjoy problem solving, and employ empathy will help them immensely whether they pursue computer programming or just about anything else in our modern economy.

Coding and access to technology are not just for geniuses or the top 1%

For those unaware the Joplin Youth Center is one of a few Orange County facilities where kids 13-18 spend their last 3 months before leaving the correctional system. It was through our website Contact Form that I received a request from Paul Michelini to speak about life in tech, and to say that it was an eye-opening experience would be an understatement. On my way up to Joplin’s beautiful campus I made a quick pit stop at Patch Coffee to fuel up on some liquid energy. Deb, Patch’s founder, came up and we began talking about the presentation and what it would entail. It was at that moment that I realized I really had little idea as to how much these young men might know about tech. Most of my presentations are either to our coding bootcamp students or local networking groups, this would be the first time I was speaking to people with limited knowledge of today’s tech scene.

The presentation, titled Life in Tech, was a general overview about what tech is, what’s going on today, and where it’s going. It might have been my 13” MacBook screen (mental note: bring projector) or the fact that these young men hadn’t thought about tech before but for most of the talk there was limited participation. For most of these teenagers a job in tech has never crossed their mind, it’s usually either the “I’m not good at math” mentality or the fact that no one they know has done it, thus holding them back. As soon as I began listing free resources such as Watch & Code, Harvard’s CS50 course, and even our Root Level 1 class their eyes lit up. Suddenly tech became accessible and a career they could see themselves in. What began with them looking down at the floor ended with almost everyone in the 25-person audience asking a question. Tech is no longer reserved for the gifted and it is important for us, the tech community, to help future generations understand that.

The tech leadership of tomorrow begins today

Those of us fortunate enough to live in Orange County can take advantage of things like Dreams for Schools and the Chamber of Commerce but where should everyone else go? Thankfully there are a myriad of resources out there to pursue a career in tech such as; freeccodecamp.com, Treehouse, Girls Who Code, code.org and many more. My conversations with applicants often revolve around the fact that they were introduced to coding early on but later drifted away. Moving forward we are excited about working with organizations such as Dreams for Schools, the Irvine Chamber of Commerce, and the Joplin Youth Center. We are not alone in the journey to educate our future technology leaders and it feels great.

As a final thought I challenge anyone reading this to keep the flame of curiosity burning bright. In the inaugural Creative Mornings Orange County event, Ben Chung opened my eyes to the fact that humans are the only species to remain curious after reaching maturity.

Since technology is not limited to computer programming, and things like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and space travel are quickly becoming part of our day to day lives. We need to help our kids stay curious. If a child thinks they are not smart enough, cool enough, rich enough, or the right “fit” for technology, we have failed.

About The Author

Deirdre Newman is a long-time journalist, who's covered OC startups for a few years.

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