A vision, a plan, and how schools in Japan embraced coding
Facing increased demand for computer science jobs, the country is preparing students with help from Minna no Code.
Each year, domestic and international tourists descend upon the 1,300-year-old Yamanaka Onsen resort — about six hours west of Tokyo — to visit its hot springs, which are said to ease muscle and joint pain. But visitors often find it’s not easy to maintain a comfortable hot spring temperature.
A student* in an Ishikawa prefecture school decided to use her programming class to develop a hot spring temperature regulation system. “By combining a temperature sensor and a heater, we created a mechanism that automatically adjusts the temperature of hot water according to the outside air at that time,” she said.
To do this, she used a micro:bit pocket-sized computer, the Proguru coding platform, and skills she learned in programming classes created by Minna no Code (which translates to “Code for Everyone”). Minna no Code is a Japanese nonprofit organization that promotes programming education in public schools and supports teachers in cooperation with companies and local governments.
“I hope this will reduce the hardships for townspeople and allow tourists to take a bath comfortably,” the student said.
The project is part of a broader initiative in Japanese schools to teach students to code. “Through these programming lessons, I was able to learn many things and had a valuable experience of thinking about the town,” she said.
The start of a movement
This kind of creative thinking is what Yuta Tonegawa had in mind when he left his job as an engineer at Raksul to create Minna no Code in 2015. After helping develop a system to improve the printing industry for Raksul, a startup he co-founded, Tonegawa wanted to focus on an important mission: expanding access to computer science education.
Finding no existing organization to support, he created his own.“I felt limited in the company, but at Raksul and in this organization [Minna no Code], I found a common point: I love making society better,” Tonegawa said from his office in Tokyo.
Tonegawa learned about Code.org when he searched for programming workshops to recommend to his non-engineer coworkers at Raksul, and was captivated by its quality, kindness, and vision. It was natural for Minna no Code and Code.org to become partners.
Hour of Code comes to Japan
Tonegawa started by participating as a volunteer in Hour of Code, a campaign designed to broaden participation and interest in computer science and show that anybody can learn the basics. He went on to promote the campaign as a grassroots movement in Japan.
In September 2015, two months after creating Minna no Code, Tonegawa visited Code.org in Seattle. He was encouraged to think bigger regarding his initiative to expand computer science education for Japanese children.
“We believe coding shouldn’t be someone’s special skill, but fundamental literacy of the 21st century, as important as reading, writing, or calculating.” — Yuta Tonegawa, founder of Minna no Code
Programming became a mandatory subject in Japan’s elementary and middle schools within the last two years. It will be required for high schools in 2022 as part of the government’s big push to digitalize education among the country’s nearly 13 million students in its almost 35,000 primary and secondary schools.
In 2016, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology revised elementary, middle, and high school curricula (something it does about every ten years), setting the timeline for introducing programming at all education levels.
As a partner of Code.org, Minna no Code has been working with the Japanese Board of Education and others in 40 prefectures nationwide on programming education, teacher workshops, and the supply of online teaching materials, lessons, and research.
The organization’s primary tool is Proguru, a platform launched in August 2017 that provides lessons for teachers and tools students can use to start coding. The site reached 740,000 users in 2020.
From teaching geography to promoting coding
This drive for more programming education was inspiring for Naoshi Nagano, a former teacher of geography and information at Chiba Prefectural Sodegaura High School who is now a teacher trainer at Minna no Code.
“Since they’re young, students can use computers and phones, especially to watch videos, but they don’t know how to create things with technology,” Nagano said.
Nagano sees technology as a creative endeavor, like music or drawing, and said he experienced a sort of creative awakening through programming. After teaching geography for ten years, he discovered that he truly enjoyed teaching computing, technology and helping kids to create using computer science.
He is now in charge of recruiting other high school educators to teach programming lessons in 2022 as part of the country’s computer science education expansion. The short-term goal for Minna no Code is to have 1,000 middle and high school teachers complete workshops.
“In the same way schools teach how to write poetry or play an instrument, it should be the norm to teach how to program to create something,” Nagano said.
In a Tokyo school, a student-created an online chat program using the Proguru platform. “What I thought was interesting was that I designed the chat screen myself,” the student said. “I tried many different colors to see which one I liked and what I thought would be easy for the other people to see before I decided.” At the end of the project, the whole class could use the program to talk to friends.
One of the advantages of the Proguru platform is the ease of use. “Teachers who are not familiar with coding can provide an experience of coding with students,” Tonegawa said.
Now that the ball is rolling, one of the main challenges is to fit computer science into the busy lives of Japanese kids. “You can learn something about computing, but you cannot be original if you don’t have enough time to develop those skills,” Tonegawa said, referring to the multiple choices children face regarding school subjects and extracurricular activities. “The only way to be creative in a programming environment is to have enough time for children to grow their creative power.”
-Jake Bell, Code.org
*Code.org does not publish the names of Japanese students who are under 18 in accordance with Japan’s student privacy policies.