The Australian Computing Academy (ACA) is an initiative of the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Engineering and IT, working with state and federal governments and industry partners to support computing in schools. ACA provides Australian teachers with educational resources and professional development necessary to deliver the new Australian Curriculum: Digital Technologies and to enable students to excel in the digital economy.
This year the free in-classroom challenges will be expanded to include years 3 and 4 – that’s children aged seven to nine – whose essential literacy and numeracy skills are starting to be developed, and to year 8 on the other end.
Part of the academy’s award-winning team helping to expand the program is Dr Nicky Ringland – entrepreneur, educator and champion for computer science and technology outreach.
“Whether students want to cure cancer, unlock the secrets of the universe or make the next killer app, they’ll need to know how to use technology to solve problems. It’s crucial to start learning those skills early,” says Dr Ringland.
Inspiring and empowering kids to develop their technology skills has been a career focus for Dr Ringland, who after completing her PhD in computational linguistics at the University of Sydney, co-founded Grok Learning – one of Australia's leading edutech startups. Wanting to dramatically expand the reach and impact of computer science education, Dr Ringland set about teaching tens of thousands of students each year to solve problems with technology, including over 11,000 students in one Australia-wide competition alone.
The Digital Technologies curriculum isn’t about creating a generation of programmers. It’s about giving the Australians of the future an understanding and appreciation of how the modern world works so they can solve big problems and meet challenges that don’t yet exist.
Through another of her initiatives, the Girls' Programming Network, Dr Ringland mentors girls as they grow to love programming. On 22 April, more than 170 Sydney schoolgirls came together on-campus at the University to learn coding and discover the world those skills can open. The MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) game, for example, is a text-based adventure game where the girls can move from virtual room to room, pick up items and fight dragons using the characters, storylines and locations they have created themselves.
“Creativity is key,” Ringland adds. “Through computer science you can create so many fantastic things across a vast range of fields.”
Now as a Computing Education Specialist at ACA, Dr Ringland sees that upskilling teachers in the knowledge and experience of Digital Technologies in the classroom is even more important than inspiring their students after school hours.
“The new Digital Technologies curriculum is a big change from existing computing education. It is much more than digital literacy,” says Ringland. She believes that school leaders cannot take a ‘business as usual’ approach by only teaching word processing and spreadsheets; they need to give teachers the time, resources and support to engage with the new subject in a meaningful way.
“It’s critically important, not just for students’ job prospects, but for Australia’s economy that we get this right,” says Dr Ringland. “Digital technologies are set to contribute $139 billion to the Australian economy by 2020 (Deloitte/ACS) but to achieve this we need to equip teachers with the skills, resources, confidence and support they need to deliver this challenging curriculum.”