26 Oct 2021

Digital makerspaces could change the present and the future for young people in Scotland

The following was written by Hilary Phillips, Senior Development Officer at YouthLink Scotland, and originally posted at digitalyouthwork.scot.

Creating places where young people can enjoy exploring digital technology is a fun – but also serious – route to developing the skills that young people need for life and the expertise that our economy is crying out for.

Makerspaces are a global movement, shown to create positive “third spaces” in people’s lives. Digital makerspaces provide a way for youth workers to engage with young people, supporting them to learn key skills around coding and computer science. IT skills can provide excellent routes into a wide range of employment opportunities but being involved in a makerspace can also mean developing confidence, resilience and relational skills.youth driven drawing

There are already models for clubs and activities that are ideal in the makerspace setting: makey makey kits, dojo, raspberry pi and much more besides.

In addition, makerspaces are associated with enterprise and entrepreneurship. They often include 3D printers and access to other pieces of equipment that enable people to quickly take a business idea all the way to market. Basically they create places where people can try things, where it’s OK if they don’t work, and where there’s plenty of support to try again.

In Ireland, TechSpaces is a national project which is helping more and more young people get involved in digital. Could we do the same in Scotland, creating places where young people choose to get involved, learning skills that will change the future for them and for the nation? We think so.

A new Digital Makerspaces Learning Community

Starting in September 2021, youth workers in Scotland can take part in some peer-to-peer learning, as part of a new digital makerpaces learning community.

The learning community is being organised by YouthLink Scotland and supported by Education Scotland’s Enhancing Professional Learning in STEM Grants Programme through the Scottish Government STEM Education and Training Strategy. YouthLink would love to hear from other youth workers (staff, volunteers) in Scotland who are interested in developing the maker practice. If you are interested joining this group please contact Hilary Phillips at YouthLink Scotland at [email protected].

We asked some of those who are planning to get involved in the learning community to share some inspiration, and here’s what happened.

Digital clubs and activities at Heart of Midlothian Football club

Tanya Howden has been involved in developing a digital makerspace at Heart of Midlothian Football Club’s Innovation Centre. She says:

“Digital Makerspaces are a place for anyone to play with different tools and technology to create projects that are interesting to them. These projects might have no particular aim or outcome other than to explore topics, interests or see how things work. Makerspaces are a fantastic way to let young people lead their own learning and see the value in the mistakes that they make along the way to give them a deeper understanding and love for the subject.

“I think my first encounter of how people were doing cool things with makerspaces was when I came across a talk by Caroline Keep at an education conference. She has set up a makerspace in her school to promote learning about STEM.

“When we think about makerspaces, you maybe think about a room full of exciting gadgets and tools like 3D printers and robots but at the heart of it, a Makerspace is simply providing a safe environment where young people feel comfortable to tinker and play with different resources and maybe even collaborate with others who have a similar interest to them!

“In 2019, Heart of Midlothian FC launched a ground-breaking community initiative called the Innovation Centre. Part of this community work provides free digital education clubs and programmes to young people in the community with the aim to change how young people perceive studying and working in STEM subjects to highlight that anyone can have an interest in computing or coding. A big part of this initiative is about providing an environment where young people can get hands-on with different technology and resources that they may not have come across in school or at home with the support of friendly mentors from industry.

“I think Makerspaces can be a fantastic way to grow a community to find new interests and learn new skills to support the next generation of makers and creators!

Helping girls get in to tech

Ryan McKay has been helping get a makerspace off the ground at The Citadel in Leith. He says, “This summer at the Citadel we have been busy developing our new Girls Makerspace pilot group. Our primary aim for this group has been to support the girls in updating our art room, transforming it into a custom makerspace. The girls have taken part in Innobox training sessions to explore innovative ways of developing their ideas. They have also engaged in various STEM activities while working towards gaining their Young STEM Leader Awards.

Having their ideas for the new makerspace genuinely taken on board has instilled a huge sense of confidence. Our young people have also gained valuable employment and enterprise skills.

Moving forward I am excited to be part of the new Digital Makerspace Learning Community and I am keen to highlight the many benefits other youth organisations can have in implementing their own activities.”

This project is funded by the SSERC as part of the Young STEM Leaders Programme.

A lifeline at a critical moment

YMCA Paisley run a successful digital makerspace. Their project was co-created with local young people whose views and needs have shaped and led the activities. The Paisley Makerspace is an award winning local project which provides an exciting model for others to emulate.

One young person, David aged 18, was referred to the Paisley ymca makerspace through a referral from another youth organisation who were supporting young people just being released from HMYOI Polmont through their employability programme. One of the more challenging aspects of David’s release was trying to avoid alcohol and substance misuse which had led to his offending in the first place.

When David first started attending sessions, he was very quiet and reserved and had never created or built anything using technology. David first took part in a ‘Bare Conductive’ session where he built his own drum machine using conductive paint, cardboard, tinfoil and with this he recorded a number of stranger sounds with a sampler. David was so blown away by what he created that he wanted to take a video of it to show his family at home.

David soon felt safe and at home at the makerspace and did not feel the need for his key worker to be in attendance as he started to make friends and help out others on their projects or creative concepts. Best of all it focused David’s mind to such an extent that he did not feel the need to be distracted by drink and drugs as he believed he had found his new passion.

David attended the Makerspace for seven months and commented “Makerspace has provided me with a lifeline at a time when my head was all over the place”.

The project helped David to prepare for work by attending sessions at the makerspace developed his time keeping, project management skills as he organised much of the Synesthesia event (a public music event). Ultimately, David’s success in dealing with the transition from custody to life on the outside was due in part to his participation at the Makerspace. Once he had managed to stop using drugs, he was able to start thinking about getting a job and rebuilding his life.

Funding the future

Kraig Brown is the Partnerships and Development Manager at the Digital Xtra Fund, where their goal is for every young person in Scotland to have access to innovative and digitally creative activities regardless of their gender, background, or where they live. Describing digital makerspaces in an article in the The Herald Kraig says, “They would be fun, safe spaces where children and young people could get hands-on and learn about tech. They could discover and explore at their own pace while trying out various coding platforms or kit. The learning is informal, but educators and volunteers would provide lessons and structure just like all the other extracurricular activities we support. However, there isn’t the stress of a test or essay at the end which puts a lot of young people off trying computing when they get to Secondary.”

Many of the projects funded by the Digital Xtra Fund, including the Heart of Midlothian Innovation Centre are promoting this very concept of digital makerspaces as the best way for young people to get creative with digital.

It’s an exciting moment. If you are interested in developing digital makerspaces for young people we’d love to hear from you. Do get in touch if you’d like to know more.

Hilary Phillips – Supporting digital youth work at YouthLink Scotland

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28 Jun 2021

Schools’ lack of computing teachers is a major error

The following Editorial appeared in The Herald on Thursday 28 June 2021 as part of their ongoing series about the Future of Education.

Scotland’s shortage of classroom coding experts means tech clubs funded by Digital Xtra Fund may be the only way for some pupils to learn the skill.

We may finally be at the point where the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic is behind us. We will not, though, be returning to things as they were before: the world has changed, bringing huge opportunities for new thinking.

This is particularly true of Scottish education. This was badly affected by lockdown with schools closed, teaching moved online and extracurricular activities largely halted.

With young people hopefully back in classrooms for good, the moment is ripe for bold new approaches to be introduced. One area where these are needed is in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning.

In particular, there is a serious problem facing computer science in Scottish schools – the number of secondary school teachers having this as their main subject has dropped by more than 22 per cent since 2008 giving young people less opportunities to take up computing.

Digital Xtra Fund, a Scottish charity created in 2016, is working to address this problem.

Backed by business partners including Baillie Gifford, AWS and CGI, it provides grants for extracurricular activities that focus on inspiring the next generation to understand and create with technology.

The shortage of computer science teachers means the coding and tech clubs supported by Digital Xtra Fund are often the only form of regular opportunity some young people have to learn about computing.

However, the organisation’s Partnerships and Development Manager, Kraig Brown, says that unfortunately many of these activities were cut during the pandemic, and continued uncertainty around next year has also meant the number of grant applications received by the Fund was down this year.

“Schools are still in pandemic mode and working on delivering their core programmes. Their main focus has been on getting core teaching back up and running. As a result, many who would have normally applied for funding for tech clubs have elected not to as they still don’t know what is going to happen next year.”

Kraig does welcome the recent commitments outlined in the Education Recovery: Next Steps programme announced by Scottish Government earlier this month in the wake of the pandemic, though he has some reservations.

The blueprint includes a commitment to ensuring every schoolchild has access to the technology they need to support their education and recruitment of 3,500 additional teachers and classroom assistants. Kraig said: “The commitment to ensuring every schoolchild has access to technology really stands out for me, but let’s make sure this isn’t just a box ticking exercise. It’s great to give youngsters a Chromebook or iPad, but they need to know how to use it – and I don’t mean just tapping apps – but actually know how these devices function.

“Children should be able to code simple tasks and control other devices with them – the hardware is only a means to the digital skills they require to make full use of the wider technology spectrum.”

Kraig also whole-heartedly welcomes the commitment to new teachers and classroom assistants but is unsure what subjects they are going to teach.

He also wonders what level they will be at – primary or secondary – and how much expertise in digital skills they will have picked up during their training. “Every university needs to be teaching new teachers these skills.”

He also wonders if such a large recruitment is even attainable, especially in computer science. In a post-Covid world even more reliant on technology, how will bright undergraduates with an interest in STEM be enticed into teaching rather than industry.

“Will they organise a targeted recruitment drive for new STEM teachers? They tried that and only had limited success, especially recruiting new computing teachers. There’s not much difference in salaries between teaching and industry at the start, but progression in industry is so much faster. I don’t see how enough talented people are going to be inspired to teach computing science without a complete rethink. It’s a serious concern.

“One answer may be to incentivise computing science teachers more, but that would cause a rightful uproar as they are not necessarily working harder or achieving more than their non-computing colleagues. It really is a challenge.”

Although it is not a perfect solution, another possibility is to recruit and train industry experts to come into classrooms. Digital Xtra Fund is very active in this area recently hiring a Community & Grants Officer to facilitate engagements between their industry partners and grant recipients.

Another initiative adopting a similar approach is the Digital Critical Friends programme run by ScotlandIS, the membership and cluster management organisation for Scotland’s digital technologies industries in partnership with the young workforce development organisation DYW Glasgow.

This project ensures every Glasgow City secondary school will have at their disposal a senior tech expert from a leading technology business – the so-called critical friend. “It’s a very, very exciting approach and I know that there are plans to roll this out beyond Glasgow”, Kraig says. “Overall, we need to ensure consistency of coverage, ideally across the whole country – there has to be more collaboration over this.

“We don’t want to create a postcode lottery leading to children in smaller towns or rural communities being unlikely to get access to computing science education. All young people having access to technology post-Covid creates almost unlimited opportunities to explore these new kinds of lateral thinking. Ensuring young people have opportunities to learn digital skills must now be as much a right as their right to learn how to read and write or their right to physical exercise.”

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28 May 2021

Why the term ‘digital native’ does not compute in Scottish classrooms

The following Editorial appeared in The Herald on Thursday 27 May 2021 as part of their ongoing series about the Future of Education.

Although today’s young people are often thought to be naturals when it comes to technology, Digital Xtra Fund believes such thinking undermines the pressing need for more Scottish pupils to take an interest in computing science. By Andrew Collier

TECHNOLOGY is ubiquitous: it surrounds us to the point where we use it intuitively and virtually without noticing. We ask it to do remarkable things and it complies, usually immediately and uncomplainingly.

That’s both a blessing and a curse. Computers and IT are simultaneously our best friend and an inhibitor to our advancement. We know things will happen when we click an app without ever really thinking about how it works or remembering that skilled people have worked to create and polish that app.

This creates an assumption and an entitlement that acts as a barrier to learning when it comes to learning computer science. If youngsters in particular grow up with technology all around them, the thinking goes, then why should they feel the need to build that technology themselves?

Today’s children are generally (and erroneously) regarded as what are known as ‘digital natives’ – young people who have grown up with computers and the internet as an integral part of their lives and as such, they are all comfortable and confident using these things.

But the challenge is getting them to realise that if they don’t develop a consciousness and a curiosity about the technology in their hands, it’s hard to convince them that they should consider a career in the science underlying it.

To put it another way, if someone is having a smooth ride in a modern car, they really don’t need to think about what is happening underneath the bonnet in the engine compartment. There’s an assumption because modern vehicles are so comfortable and reliable, we really no longer need mechanics. Until, of course, the car breaks down.

When applied to computer science, this assumptive ethos is of concern to educators and in particular to Digital Xtra Fund, a Scotland-wide charity working to build interest in computing and technology among those aged 16 and under through extracurricular activities.

Kraig Brown, the Fund’s Partnerships and Development Manager, believes this attitude is creating problems when it comes to getting students engaged in programmes such as the ones supported by his own organisation and others such as dressCode, which works to inspire Scottish girls to learn computing.

“The term ‘digital native’ implies that computer users don’t need to take computing science. It also assumes that they will automatically have the skills they need to enter the sort of tech-centric careers we are trying to encourage students into.

“That might be the case for a minority, but it certainly isn’t for a majority. In fact, the phrase ‘digital native’ diminishes the work that we do by suggesting the programmes we support for young people aren’t really needed.”

He adds: “They can go through school thinking that all they need to do is pick up an iPad and they can find everything they need on the internet.

“But when they get beyond school and into university or an apprenticeship, they find they do need some computer science skills for a lot of careers in the world today – and not just tech-based roles. Once they realise they don’t have the necessary skills to get into many job markets, what do they do then? They can reskill or upskill but it’s much easier if we instil these computing skills earlier.”

Kraig makes the point that previous generations using popular early domestic computers such as the Commodore 64 or BBC Micro generally had to learn something about programming.

“You had to know about computational thinking just to use them! Modern computers have eliminated that need. That’s good in many ways, it makes technology more accessible, but it also means many modern users don’t have those skills anymore.”

The declining numbers of computer science teachers in Scottish schools over the last 15 years hasn’t helped the situation. Even in 2021, computer science is not taught in every secondary school.

In the Highlands alone – an area nearly the size of Belgium – there are nine full-time Computer Science teachers covering 29 secondary schools. “I think most senior leadership teams in schools appreciate how important the subject is by now, but because many don’t have the staff or resources, they can’t be as proactive in promoting the subject or getting their students as involved as they would like.”

Last year’s Logan Review into education produced for the Scottish Government recommended that computer science should be treated as a core subject such as maths and physics.

Kraig supports this, though he concedes the shortage of computing teachers will be an issue. “The challenges with computer science at the secondary level is negatively impacting a lot of young people in Scotland, even if they don’t know it yet. I believe one solution is to aggressively upskill our primary teachers and introduce computing skills at an earlier stage to give them the foundational skills they need as well as excite them about the possibilities of tech.”

Digital Xtra Fund Round VI AnnouncementRecruiting more computer science teachers or introducing these skills earlier won’t help if there isn’t uptake from young people in secondary and beyond. How can the question of exciting students about building computing skills be successfully addressed? He believes the learning must be directly connected to real life.

“In my opinion, the best way is to get industry involved – ideally young experts or professionals, but really anyone who can talk about their career, the skills they use, and how technology impacts this. So much of what we do in daily life is based on technology and the pandemic has only amplified this. It has also highlighted the growing importance of having technology and connectivity in place for all.”

Many people born before 1980 have recently learned new digital skills as a matter of necessity. Kraig believes that the same kind of urgency and thinking is now required to inspire today’s generation of young people to take the next steps to become digital creators and digital leaders, not simply ‘digital natives’.

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