As the robots become more and more likely to overtake the human race, the workforce is going to become exponentially more demanding of workers who know how to effectively operate more advanced and intricate technology.
But UCode, which just opened an Ithaca location in the Shops at Ithaca Mall, is looking to get kids started much earlier, providing them with a solid foundation for when they later may be required to learn more to achieve their career goals.
“UCode is a retail lab where we teach computational thinking and coding to kids,” UCode academic director Janet Carmosky said. “Our mission is to inspire and educate young people so they have the skills they need in what we call the ‘algorithmic economy,’ the economy of the future where you have to solve really complicated problems with lots of data, computers and machines. We think kids should have the skills to be able to solve those complicated problems.”
UCode has been open since the beginning of 2019 and already has built up classes to the point that student applicants had to be turned away due to a lack of space. The response was somewhat anticipated by Carmosky and the rest of UCode, who felt they would find an eager community of academic families by coming to Ithaca. During breaks in school, Carmosky said UCode would be running week-long camps from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. When school is being held, UCode hosts two 90-minute sessions each day after school during the week, and all day on weekends starting at 11:00 a.m. until the mall closes.
Along with running classes and camps, UCode will also be hosting several presentations throughout the year, hoping to enlighten kids and the public about the different innovations local people are working on, and, in their own words, “a series of talks with today’s brilliant technology leaders to inspire tomorrow’s brilliant technology leaders” which is called the Future2040 series. Those interested can attend the next one being held, on Feb. 21 at UCode from 5:00 to 7:30, which will feature Adam Maher and Mark Lawley of Ursa Space Systems about their work with geospatial analysis.
The curriculum stems from challenges that students must complete step-by-step so the classes are not lecture-based. UCode’s goals are based on the premise that in the near future, humans will need to know how to interact with robot technology in order to succeed in virtually any career path, no matter how high- or low-paying.
“There’s more and more automation in manufacturing. There’s more and more A.I. [artificial intelligence] in white collar work,” she said. “There’s computers everywhere. So, we feel like it is here. We need to be able to understand how to operate and work with robots and use them to solve problems rather than just be users of them.”
Carmosky said Ucode has found that they’re able to effectively teach children as young as nine years old using a simplified version of Python coding language. In order to engage the kids, students are tasked with guiding robots through a series of moves, something that Carmosky said can help make the experience more enriching than simply looking at a screen. A physical being is moving in front of them, responding to their commands.
“We make sure that we take every opportunity in the curriculum to point out the learning that is happening,” Carmosky said. “You’re making a robot move, sure, but you’re also learning how to break a problem down and apply persistence and creativity, and all your tools like math and logic.”
Though some kids might come in with a similar attitude to the classes as they would to a regular, boring school day, Carmosky said often they will become interested in the material once the experiential elements become clear.
“We give them the opportunity to own a process of controlling a robot, and they really do zoom in,” Carmosky said. “It’s a really wonderful thing to see, to see their little minds growing.”