We aren’t just out to raise a generation of great coders, we are preparing children to become the leaders of their future world. When the children of today grow up, they’ll be immersed in a world run by technology (significantly more so than we are today). We are entering the 4th Industrial Revolution where AI, robotics, Internet of Things, Biotech, and more new connected technologies will disrupt our world as we know it. Whole industries will die and new ones will replace them. As researcher Marina Umaschi Bers, author of Coding as a Playground put it, “those who can produce digital technologies will do better than those who can only consume them. Those who can innovate and problem solve will create the democracies of tomorrow, ready to take on the challenges of a multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious, complex global world.”
As a part of our series about what’s around the corner for the toy, game, and video game industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Grant Smith.
Grant is the first Vice President of Education at Code Ninjas, the world’s fastest growing kids coding franchise. An industry veteran, Smith comes to Code Ninjas with extensive experience in the education system, having spent the majority of his career leading elementary and middle-school computer science programs across the nation. Smith not only helped write the national K-12 Computer Science Standards, he also helped write curriculum for some of the leading content providers including code.org, Girl Scouts of America, codeSpark and many more. His book “Everything You Need to Ace Computer Science and Coding” will be sold globally starting in the Spring of 2020. Smith is using his experience to expand and enhance the learning opportunities at Code Ninjas centers across the country. He holds a B.S. in Information Systems and a Masters of Education Technology.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
I absolutely love where my career has taken me, and in hearing my backstory, it may sound like a perfectly executed plan, but it hasn’t been. Almost every part of my path comes down to a “right time, right place” situation. After working at a Big 4 accounting firm in the Silicon Valley, I confessed to my newly-wed wife that my real calling was teaching. I joined The New Teacher Project who happened to place me under a principal in South Phoenix who saw my background in tech and asked me to teach coding instead of science. Back then, teaching coding to elementary and middle school students was still rare. After a while, a neighboring school district heard about my work and asked me to join them and train teachers at every school so that all students received computer science education at every grade level (one of the first districts in the country to do so). Following that, a company heard about my work and asked me to train teachers at multiple school districts and when that company was sold I continued the work through my own firm, training thousands of teachers in computer science education across the United States and in dozens of countries. At that time I also helped content providers develop coding curriculum, standards, and training materials. Along the way I’ve been honored to work with some incredible people, all of whom are doing herculean feats in our education system.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
From this experience, two lessons were permanently reinforced in my framework. First, we must give ALL students the opportunity to code. Had this group of girls been excluded from my class (by culture, the way they were treated, or by interest) the world would have never been blessed with their heartfelt project. We absolutely must teach computer science in a way that is inclusive to ALL. Second, students should have the freedom and flexibility to work on projects that are relevant to them. That doesn’t mean throw learning objectives out the window. The group didn’t get an A on their project just because it brought tears to my eyes, but because they also met the project objectives (creating their own functions in a program). Nevertheless they had the freedom within the project constraints to create something that was meaningful to them.
Ok fantastic. Let’s now move to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell us about the technological innovations in toys or games that you are working on?
There are a few exciting innovations I’m working on at Code Ninjas. Our Create program takes kids from knowing nothing about coding to developing and publishing their own game in a fun, yet professional, game development environment (Unity). Plus, the whole learning progression is gamified through things like our belt system where kids level up and earn the next colored wrist bands (that align with the standard karate belt system) as they learn more. Our Prove Yourself trials along the way are fun project-based assessments where kids show off their coding skills through capstone type programs. We also hold hackathons that are open to everyone that pit teams against each other as they battle for rank in a timed project build-off. Our recent Holiday Hackathon produced some of the most amazing holiday themed games we’ve ever seen! We’re also launching a new Code Ninjas JR Program to teach kids as young as five how to code using our award-winning partner platform codeSpark Academy.
We’re doing some really amazing things with technology, however, I think the most exciting innovation we’re working on is taking a step back from tech. Sure our technology platform is amazing and the kids code in world-class environments. But while we see more and more “learn to code on your own” online platforms pop up, it seems like people are forgetting to ask if kids are learning anything. Code Ninjas takes a different approach, we believe children learn best not just by the latest innovation, but when they are supported by a caring mentor (we call them Code Senseis) and peers who are learning right beside them. So while kids can work through our program at their own pace and code amazing video games, they always have access to in-person help from a guide who wants to see them succeed. I joined Code Ninjas because of this balanced approach we take with technology and personal attention.
How do you think this might disrupt the status quo?
I think our child-first approach will make parents and children think twice about settling for a technology focused program. Mitch Resnick, MIT Professor and world-renowned expert in computer science education came up with the 4 P’s:
This formula from Resnick isn’t just a hunch, it’s based on decades of research. Code Ninjas is disrupting the status quo of learning alone online by engaging kids in all four of Resnick’s P’s. Kids learn a ton at Code Ninjas centers because they make friends, have fun, and engage in projects they care about.
You, of course, know that games and toys are not simply entertainment, but they can be used for important purposes. What is the “purpose” or mission behind your company? How do you think you are helping people or society?
On the surface, it may look like Code Ninjas centers are just fun places for kids to learn about coding. Our real mission is a bit deeper. We aren’t just out to raise a generation of great coders, we are preparing children to become the leaders of their future world. When the children of today grow up, they’ll be immersed in a world run by technology (significantly more so than we are today). We are entering the 4th Industrial Revolution where AI, robotics, Internet of Things, Biotech, and more new connected technologies will disrupt our world as we know it. Whole industries will die and new ones will replace them. As researcher Marina Umaschi Bers, author of Coding as a Playground put it, “those who can produce digital technologies will do better than those who can only consume them. Those who can innovate and problem solve will create the democracies of tomorrow, ready to take on the challenges of a multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious, complex global world.”
I’m very interested in the interface between games and education. How do you think more people (parents, teachers etc.) or institutions (work, school etc.) can leverage toys or gamification to enhance education?
Learning should be fun and games can promote learning; it’s a two way street. Some of the most basic games like hopscotch are not just fun, but help small children develop crucial motor skills. One of my favorite books is Coding as a Playground by Marina Umaschi Bers. In her book Bers notes that “when coding is taught with a playful approach, children are not afraid to make mistakes. After all, playing is just that: playing.”
The reason why learning isn’t always fun is because it’s extremely difficult to be both fun and conducive to learning. As a classroom teacher my primary goal was learning. I’ll admit I didn’t always come up with exciting ways to engage my students; some lessons were boring.
At Code Ninjas, our standard is higher. Every activity in our centers needs to be fun, engaging, and educational. We believe kids learn best when they are having fun. We also want kids to look forward to their time with us after a long day at school.
I know that this question may be outside of your core expertise, but I’m sure you will be able to share some important insight. In your opinion, how is the US doing with regard to engaging young people, and particularly girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
There are some great organizations dedicated to engaging girls and young women in STEM. However, we shouldn’t have to hope that a national club has a chapter in your city. I believe to really make a difference, the change needs to happen at the individual level. I’m not an expert, but I’m always trying to learn how to be more inclusive. Here are some things that everyone work with young people in STEM can do to engage girls and young women:
- Environment. Create a welcoming environment where girls feel like they belong. This includes everything from the culture you cultivate to the space you provide. Does your room feel inviting to young women or are the decorations too masculine? Do the posters on your walls feature women, or only men in computer science? Do you use examples of women in STEM? Are the adults (mentors, teachers, guests…) all men or do you include women for the young girls to look up to.
- Projects. Provide young women with voice and choice as they work on STEM projects. Provide opportunities for girls to explore their unique interests through projects. The example of the girls in my class making a memorial program for a friend is a great example of allowing the opportunity to work on a project that is interesting to young girls. One generality I noticed in my experience is that many girls are excited about programing projects that benefit people or help society in some way. For example, the Coding For Good merit badges I helped create for the Girl Scouts provide opportunities to create games, apps, and programs that help other people.
- Relationships. Make sure the girls and young women are supported with social connections. Each young woman should know you sincerely care about them as an individual. Research has shown that in computer science classes the teacher spends significantly more time helping and talking with boys than they do girls. This is true for both male and female teachers. Please make a conscious effort to spend time with all young women. Also, try to make sure every girl in the class has a friend. Friends can provide moral support, answers to tough content area questions, and they make things more fun!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Find me on Twitter: @wgrantsmith (or Code Ninjas @codeninjas)
Follow my wife and I as we teach our own pre-school aged kids pre-coding on Instagram: @LittleProblemSolvers
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.