Ian McCrae CEO of Orion Healthcare sees merit in teaching 5 year olds how to code

Will Kiwi five-year olds take to algorithm they way they absorb French, Spanish or Mandarin as a second language. New Zealand may be able to grow a sustainable pool of computer programmers by exposing young school kids to the concept of programming. Ian McCrae, founder of Orion Healthcare, is keen for all schools to teach early computing skills.

“We have every child in school taught a bit of chemistry, a bit of biology. I would suggest – as everyone is using technology – all kids get taught a bit of programming. Creating a software is truly an academic process. Digital technology should be taught from a young age,” McCrae told Idealog. 

Orion which develops e-healthcare information management solutions for the world out of New Zealand has been faced with acute shortage of software developers, echoing a perennial problem within New Zealand.

McCrae’s view is not far-fetched at all given an Irish computer scientist J.Paul Gibson, has experimented on and found that five-year kids do have a far greater propensity to absorb computer language the way they learn a second language with surprising ease.

Gibson who taught himself how to code was frustrated with his 18- and 19-year old high school students who had trouble grasping basic programming concepts. His hunch was that perhaps these kids were taught computing a bit too late.

According to Wired, he started in the early 2000s to use game-design puzzles to teach rudimentary Java to 8- and 9-year olds with much success. This set him to wonder how young can one start to teach coding to kids without them first having basic literacy skills.

He experimented – and was surprised – by the incredible ease at which five-year olds were able to code. Using a custom Java applet, he taught kids in kindergarten how to write tic-tac-toe programmes. Using coloured balls and string, kids learnt how to create graph algorithms, the building blocks of computer language.

It is widely accepted that the earlier kids learn a second language, the easier it is for them to speak it at ease. The same neural networks would work on computer language, too, some scientists believe.

McCrae’s definitely keen for schools to revisit how they teach digital technology which he says, is sadly, antiquated. The subject is often lumped with soft fabric and woodwork, among others. And when it comes to IT, it rarely extends beyond teaching kids how to create power points.

“To be fair, there has been some effort made by the Ministry of Education, to go through the syllabus and implement changes. But there is still a long way to go.”

A traditional science syllabus may need revision every five years. Not true when it comes to the digital technology one, McCrae says.

“Computer science is changing at a pretty fast rate. When you create a syllabus for general science, the changes may be slight. But for computer science, it needs to be updated, every two years or so.”

Digital technology, he says, is changing so quickly, so the way it is being taught needs to be updated too – not only in terms of the syllabus but how the education administration is managing IT education. Teachers are often struggling to adopt technology within easy grasp of school kids.

At Orion, 50% of its staff are involved in research and development. It has many ‘imports’, from Eastern Europe, UK, US, Asia, to fill gaps in the local talent supply side.

The company has been proactive in solving some of its, and also the industry’s, problem, by introducing the Codeworx Challenge in 2013 which is opened to every secondary school in New Zealand.

Every student/team in the challenge must use a Raspberry Pi – a credit card-sized computer board developed in the UK to facilitate computer science learning - to come up with an innovative programming solution. Ten schools were given Raspberry Pi sets to kick off the programme.

McCrae he has been impressed with the school kids’ ease at adapting and applying digital technology. “The passion has produced some fantastic projects, changing the way people perceive digital technology. Our goal is to inspire kids to take computer science at university.

“And why wouldn’t you? The industry is fighting over staff, it pays a lot better than other sectors - and the pay rate is climbing,” he adds.

Besides Codeworx, Orion also leverages upon the tribal nature of software developers through opportunities to get them into communities, testing their creativity and skills.

It holds regular networking events at Orion Health, where current staff are encouraged to invite their peers along for a social get together.

At its monthly “Meet Ups” – specialist groups congregate in both Auckland and Christchurch to share knowledge around technical advancements and increase their understanding of new developments. To date, topics have included software craftsmanship, JVM, continuous delivery and UX.

Another programme, Shadow IT - supports woman in technology. Orion took on six students and dispersed them within teams to give them first-hand look at the work environment.

Codeworx winners

Fourteen year old, Dylan Townsend of Mission Heights Junior College in Manukau, took out the top Individual prize for his project titled ‘Caution, Child on Driveway’, which alerts drivers to children, pets or other objects in the driveway. He receives $1,250 prize money, and $2,500 worth of digital tech equipment for his school.

The winning team was also from Mission Heights, with their project titled ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ and uses an ultrasound device to help blind people move about. The team consisting of Ngapipi Herewini, Molly Herbert, Hari Narasimhan and Jasneek Sandhu receive $750 each and $2,500 for their school.

Other noteworthy mentions were:

Nathan James from Burnside High School was highly commended by judges with his device which allows people to easily calculate the cost of bulk bin selections before they are dispensed. 

Fellow student, Tom Wright, also received a Highly Commended for his coding project to turn his phone into an automated and secure door opener – removing the need to carry around a swipe card. 

A team of students from Burnside also developed a device which monitors the terrain safety levels while riding a quad bike.