Start-up encourages greater participation in STEM

Monday, 5 December 2016
A new online learning platform creates engaging and fun resources that teachers could use in their classrooms to teach programming.

In recent years, Australia has been working to increase the number of students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects at school, with the federal government committing an extra $12 million to help restore focus on the subjects.

But it’s not just the government working towards change, with startups also looking to encourage greater participation in STEM.

Grok Learning is one such company.

The online learning platform was established to create engaging and fun resources that teachers could use in their classrooms to teach programming.

The company was founded by four individuals who were running various computer science outreach activities, such as the National Computer Science School and the Girls’ Programming Network.

“But we wanted a way to really scale up our impact in a way that in-person activities just can’t,” said Nicky Ringland, one of the co-founders.

“As the [NCSS] program grew, it became more and more difficult to run just as purely a volunteer activity, and at the same time we kept getting requests from teachers – extra resources for younger students, teaching web development and self-paced courses.”

After getting tired of telling them they didn’t offer those types of programs, the co-founders started Grok Learning.

A small team of developers created the website, working on interface improvements, ensuring the security of the system, adding features for supporting new types of courses, and giving teachers more control and insight into students' learning.

During development of the website, the focus was on understanding how the product was going to be used.

“For instance, a teacher might set one of our competitions as an assessment task for their class. Students might start working on the questions during class time, then want to continue at home, on a computer in the library, or at their grandparent’s house,” she said.

“It’s unlikely that all of these computers have Python installed, so having a way for students to effectively run Python in the browser was critical.”

There were also educational requirements. For example, the team wanted its notes to be interactive and have code snippets that students could start playing around with straight away.

It was also important that the resources supported teachers in what can be a difficult subject to teach.

To help with this, the team established a Teacher Dashboard that provides live updates of students’ progress. This allows a teacher to walk around the room with an iPad and understand how each student is progressing and give targeted help.

Ringland said every part of the website has been completely rewritten at least once, and the team is still iterating.

This has included adding extra features such as Blockly, a visual programming language similar to Scratch, which allows students to build programs by pulling blocks together.

“We’ve also developed an HTML & CSS course and competition. Developing that and the auto-marking behind it was certainly a major iteration. We also added in a tournament feature where students could submit designs and vote for their favourite,” Ringland said.

STEM misconceptions

Common misconceptions around STEM include the idea that programming is something that can be only done by a genius, according to Ringland.

“Then there’s a problem of a lack of diverse role models – students tend to think that all coders are white, male and American, partly because the only ‘programmers’ they’ve heard of are Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg,” she said.

“Then there’s the myth that coding is a solitary affair, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a lot of communication in programming: communicating with users and stakeholders, but also a really large amount of discussion with colleagues working in different teams.

While work is being done to break down these misconceptions, Ringland said the stories that come out of places like Silicon Valley aren’t doing much to help, which tend to play into the stereotypes instead of challenging them.

“The stories that tend to be reported on most are those big ‘fairy tale’ stories – how someone’s app is making a large sum of money and how a startup was acquired for an even larger sum of money,” Ringland said.

“Those aren’t the sorts of stories that students can easily picture themselves in – those stories are what happens to ‘someone else.’ Perhaps we need to change the sorts of stories we hear about?”

Although the current generation is much more skilled with and comfortable using technology, Ringland said this doesn’t always translate into knowing how it works or what they can do with it. One reason for this is because everyday technology is much more complicated and refined.

This makes one of the main challenges ensuring students engage in real world experiences with coding so they can see how coding is relevant to them.

“This is particularly important for students who might not fit the stereotypical ‘coder’ image,” Ringland said.

“It’s fun to play with robots, but without students understanding how what they’re learning is relevant outside of that ‘classroom robotics’ context, it can be tough to keep them engaged.”