SOCIETY | Jun 14, 2019

Data and Algorithms: computational thinking at school

Through playing we learn to plan the future. This is shown by the experience of Engineering volunteers who have been working with schools for the last 4 years to train new makers of innovation.

From the outset, Engineering has supported a series of academic-scientific projects that contribute to supporting Italy’s cultural and social growth. One of the most important is Plan the Future, an initiative launched in 2014 by CINI in agreement with MIUR, which aims to transmit computational thinking and the basic concepts for data manipulation to children and adolescents. The company has made a team of 30 volunteers available for this purpose; they devote part of their time in schools to help fill the digital skills gap that even digital natives present. From Rome to Naples, then Palermo, Bologna, Padua, Milan, Siena, Lucca, Florence and many other places.

In addition to activities with students, the volunteers have participated in initiatives such as Researchers’ Nights in Frascati and Siena, in collaboration with scientists and researchers from INFN, ESA, the Universities of Siena, Florence and Pisa, and many local companies.

Everything with play, nothing for play

Activities have been of various types, but all in a deliberately playful context. Unplugged lessons have been proposed, without the use of PCs, with the aim of developing the basic principles of computational thinking; coding activities using Scratch, AppInventor and Unity 3D; experiments with 3D printers and educational robots (such as DOC Clementoni or M-BOT), up to the development of hardware systems using RaspberryPI and Arduino with high school students.

In addition to training interventions, the projects captured some of the needs of schools, contributing, for example, to the creation of 4.0 laboratories thanks to the reuse of computers decommissioned by Engineering customers and made suitable for the needs of the youngsters with the installation of open source software.

Thinking about tomorrow

Some Engineering volunteers have brought specialized skills to be spent in the professional world, both through the organization of a three-year School-Work alternation project in an institution in Rome and with activities related to video game design.

Space has also been given to digital craftsmanship, through the use of 3D printers and scanners, numerical control machines and laser cutters: makers’ tools thanks to which the youngsters have seen how it is possible to develop critical thinking and better understand the whole life cycle of  manufactured products: from conception to design, up to realization of a prototype.

Play, robotics and much open source

New activities taken to schools in this last school year have also included educational robotics, used both in classes and in events. For example, thanks to collaboration with a non-profit association from Naples, a day dedicated to discovery of the world of Arduino – an open source electronic prototyping platform – was organized to celebrate Arduino Day and the start of European Maker Week 2018. The examples demonstrated during the event ranged from the robotic arm to the smartphone-controlled auto, the smart backpack optimized for urban use and automatic irrigation systems for plants. These examples have been useful for helping students understand the issue of georeferencing and relative position data, with the aim of putting the theoretical concepts learned at school or university into immediate practice.

Beyond computational thinking: one’s data on the net in respect of privacy and security

Too often young people do not understand the main difference between users and creators of technology: those who create often set up obligatory pathways of knowledge and use, while those who use unwittingly offer data for creating new guided pathways. Talking about issues like these with youngsters has allowed Engineering volunteers to contribute in some way to awakening consciences and allowing students and adults to rediscover the value of data and the importance of careful reflection on their sharing and transfer.

We are responsible for our future

“What Engineering does – explains Enrico Nardelli, Professor of Computer Science at the Tor Vergata University of Rome and project coordinator – is an invaluable support for Plan the Future. Not only in terms of resources that actively contribute to the spreading in schools of the culture of computer science, the science that explains the digital world, but also as a commitment of the enormous strategic value of an Italian company for the cultural growth of our country”.

“Engineering believes in involving communities and sharing experiences – explains the Director of Corporate Social Responsibility Concetta Lattanzio – For this reason, the company has always been committed to supporting initiatives such as Plan the Future, making people, expertise and technological skills available, with the conviction that digital knowledge is a precious tool for spreading an aware and responsible culture and training new citizens, ‘makers’ of innovation”.