Jamie Chang the founder of Under the GUI Academy talks with Ali Pitargue of BCIT on the importance of Coding at a young age, and discusses coding education from an international perspective.


Welcome back to For the Record on Evolution 107.9, my name is Ali Pitargue and on this edition we will look into kids learning how to code computers. Now the network information and technological age is ever evolving, and for many young people, from this generation and beyond, tech is embedded in how they live their lives. Given, this many are making a compelling case as to why young people should move beyond using technology to applying and developing them. Apple CEO Tim Cook, even made comments last week calling a 4 year degree in coding old and traditional. Now my guest today, Jamie Chang, is the founder of Under the GUI, or “Under the G – U – I” which stands for Graphical User Interface. They are an academy that teaches, computer coding, and STEM skills to kids Grades 1 – 12. Through their curriculum kids learn how to program video games, apps and software. Jamie thanks for speaking with us today.
You’re welcome. Good to be here.
So, Jamie my first question for you is, do you think coding literacy is an essential skill to have for young people?
Yeah, definitely. When you ask about whether or not it’s going to be an essential skill for young people. I think the question at its core really is a question of jobs in the future, or the majority of the problems people are going to have to solve in the future. I think the majority of jobs at least in the near-term future, like the next 5, 10 years is definitely going to be related to software. Even if you in particular, aren’t working with code, you’ll be working with other people who are coding. Someone that’s also vying for your position, that does know how to code is going to have that slight edge, so definitely, I think it’s going to be at least in the near term future, a really essential skill for young people to learn.
What are the advantages of learning coding and computer programming at a younger age?
Are you familiar with schemas?
Not really, but go on elaborate on it.
So, schemas are like this mental model in your brain, like a concept or a digital model in the brain, very abstract concept. There was a study done recently, on kids that grew up with Pokémon, and kids that never watched it. Did you watch Pokémon as a kid?
Yeah, quite a lot actually! I played all the games and everything.
That’s great! So they did a study on kids like us, who grew up with Pokémon and kids that didn’t grow up with it. They looked at the brain, and they showed an image of a Pokémon, they showed an image of pictures, and random animals, and for us, who grew up with it, there’s actually an area of the brain that lights up. So there’s this physical manifestation of this schema in the brain, model of this Pokémon there, and for others it doesn’t. The people that didn’t grow up with they don’t have it light up. It’s really fascinating because what it’s saying is the brain has created this physical area that helps us categorize Pokémon really fast – because what that does, is it allows us to do higher level functions; bringing it back to computer science, or math or Science, or STEM skills, it’s the same idea. If you can do a whole bunch of rote math skills, 2+2, 3×3 and put that away and create schemas for that, and it’s super effortless for you to do 3×3, and you know immediately that’s 9 without doing any computation it frees your resources up to do higher level thinking. For other people, it’s a really hard task to do, but for you it’s effortless. If you learn science and technology at a younger age that’s what it’ll allow you to do. That’s not to say if you’re older, you can’t – it’ll just take you longer to build those neural connections, to make it more effortless.
What do you think needs to be done in the Canadian Education system in order to promote Coding skills among young people?
The VSB is doing a good job in trying to modernize technology, and modernize the curriculum. They just put one a few years ago. They put out a new ADST curriculum, called the “Applied Design, (Skills), and Technologies.” and I think they did a phenomenal job at it, because right now, stuff you’re learning today is going to be very different than the stuff you learned 20 years ago. The smartest kid in the room 20 years ago knew all the, knowledge, the facts. They’re like “The capital of the country is Ottawa!” and now; we can just pull out our phone and say Ok well, I knew that, it’s on my phone. So what they’re trying at the VSB is learning more about more modern skills, rather than learning about the facts and the figures, and more about problem solving and in this case coding.
Let’s talk about Under the GUI; in what ways do you encourage your students to innovate?
For us, we want to teach kids the skills for them to elaborate on their own. So for us, we create games in classes or apps in classes, but these apps can easily be used for other things. For example, we had this girl; she was 8 years old at the time. She was making this asteroid shooter, and she went home and came back with an app that was completely different from what I was teaching her in class – in fact it had no images, it was just sounds. It was still an asteroid game, apparently, but there were no images, I couldn’t see anything it was just a blank screen. So I asked her, why is it blank? I only hear sound effects, is it a bug? And she said No, no, this is for my friend, who’s blind – I wanted to make a game that we can both play. And I thought that was a very good example of how you can apply the skills you learn in school, and modify it at home that can be helpful to everyone.
We had another girl, who made a silent alarm app. If you need an alarm to go off, you press this button and it’ll send a text message to everyone.
We had one more kid, where he was accidentally satirical. He was fairly young, so he doesn’t understand all the politics that’s going on, but he made a game about Donald Trump, it was really funny because it was the Universe version of Donald Trump, where Donald Trump was building this asteroid belt, and that asteroid belt represented the wall, and your job was to gather aliens from one planet to another but Donald Trump stops you – because he doesn’t want you crossing the border. It’s not really Donald Trump either, it’s like the robot version of Donald Trump, and you gotta blow him up, so you can bring these immigrants across. It was hilarious, because, I don’t think he fully understands the politics behind it, but these kids are gathering what they know and putting it into their apps and their games.
Jamie, you did mention a couple of girls in your class. I’m curious about the diversity of your students; by in large as of today, computer programming is still largely a male dominated industry. I’m curious how does Under the GUI encourage all kinds of kids to learn these skills?
We have multiple locations in Canada, and in Asia, and it’s interesting to see the demographics of each region. So you’ll notice in our North Vancouver location, there’s actually more girls than there are boys in some of the classes. I don’t know why. I don’t try to encourage one way or the other, I just open the classes up and anyone who wants to join can join, and we find that there are a lot more girls that are interested up in the North Vancouver location. In Asia, it’s definitely true that there are a lot more boys and it may be partly due to the way the genders are divided there, but in Canada it’s fairly even. But I find that it’s interesting as an observer, rather than someone that pushes one way or the other.
What have been the biggest challenges in running the Academy?
Parents. One word… (laughs)
In what way?
I was listening to a podcast with Elon Musk, and he has solved some really cool problems, like Solar City. Solar City does solar panels, they’re trying to put solar panels on tops of buildings to create energy – and he (Elon Musk) says that the majority of problems they’re trying to solve at Solar City, aren’t sexy. They’re not the super sexy, let’s optimize the solar cells, or work on the technology, or see how much power we can generate, it’s really about landscaping the tops of buildings, it’s really about managing the managers of buildings, and negotiating, which is like the unsexy work that comes with saying you’re dealing with solar panels and that you’re changing the world. It’s the same idea when I started this academy, initially I thought I’d do the really fun stuff with the kids, but really, most of the stuff I’m doing is navigating parent questions. I had a parent ask “Why aren’t you teaching kids punch cards?” and this is really old technology – “there’s a lot of value in that.” and I think they’re right, there is some value in learning how to code on punch cards, but we have to draw a line between, where we no longer have to learn this technology, and we have to learn this newer technology. Navigating those kind of questions, has been the hardest part, teaching the kids, doing all that, that’s super fun, the other stuff not so much (laughs).
Jamie, just my final question for you. What are some further goals for the academy in the future?
We’re taking the stuff that we’re doing in our after school program, in the 7 years we’ve been doing this, taking all that content and putting it online and providing that for the (public) schools. We developed our own website called PixelPAD.io you can go for free, public schools can go for free, where we take all the stuff we’ve learned over the years and put it onto the browser. So as long as you have a browser, it should be able to work.
I see! We look forward to checking that out! We have come to the end of it, that’s I have for you Jamie. Again, I’d like to thank you for talking with us today.
Yeah, you’re welcome.
And this has been For the Record on Evolution 107.9, I’m Ali Pitargue, thanks for listening!