Why three million Italian kids love to code

Since it was launched in 2014, Programma il Futuro has helped turn Italy into a powerhouse of computer science teaching.

“I’ve always appreciated the beauty of the place where I live,” says Rosalba Ciaffone, a science teacher in Istituto Comprensivo Joseph Stella, an elementary school of Muro Lucano, a town with breathtaking views in the less prosperous southern part of Italy. “But it’s a little far from everything and everybody.”

Perched atop a ravine, with picturesque houses built on terraces, Muro Lucano has seen its share of history in its eventful existence, including earthquakes and wars. Yet under Ms. Ciaffone, who began her career thirty years ago as a teacher for children with special needs, this town of 6,000 is preparing for a different challenge in the digital era: learning new skills like coding.

“I’ve always seen in computer science the possibility of connecting the people of Muro Lucano, and hence also the children of my school, with the world,” she says. “And so I jumped at the beautiful opportunity Programma il Futuro was offering, and I have transformed my class into a little army of programmers: we didn’t have great equipment or great resources, but what matters is not the computer but what’s inside your head.”

Ms. Ciaffone’s classes went on to win four Programma il Futuro prizes in the last seven years — including one for Bee Bot, a little robot that helps introduce kids to the basics of robotics. In 2015, they were honored by then Italian minister of Education Stefania Giannini.

She is one of the success stories of Programma il Futuro, a private initiative based on Code.org’s curriculum to expand access to computer science education. Quietly, the program has helped turn a country more famous for food and fashion into a powerhouse in the teaching of coding.

Italy is the world’s 23rd largest country by population, with 60.5 million people, and the world’s 25th largest economy by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, according to the World Bank. Yet, it ranks fifth in total Code.org accounts (after the U.S., Turkey, U.K., and Australia) and fifth in terms of accounts and usage of the Code.org curriculum for elementary education (Computer Science Fundamentals).

How did Italy achieve these numbers related to computer science education? It all began when Enrico Nardelli launched Programma il Futuro in 2014 to promote the teaching of coding with an emphasis on elementary schools.

Nardelli, a computer science professor at Rome’s Tor Vergata University and President of Informatics Europe, believes computer science is to the current digital society what classical science subjects — like Math, Physics, or Biology, were to the industrial era. “I have not really grasped why we have been so successful in Italy, but I have some guesses,” he says in a videoconference from Rome in which he was joined by Francesco Lacchia, head of the translation department at Programma il Futuro.

Why coding caught on

“From a cultural viewpoint, there has always been a fascination in Italy for the United States,” Nardelli says, which helps explain why Italians found Code.org attractive.

And Code.org’s curriculum plays a key role. “The material almost teaches itself,” Nardelli says. “We only needed to introduce it for schools to take it.”

But the program’s success took Nardelli by surprise. In 2019–20, almost three million students enrolled in the program, about one-third of all Italian schoolchildren. There are 38,000 teachers participating in the project in 7,000 schools all over the country.

Ms. Ciaffone, the Muro Lucano teacher, offers a simpler explanation. “Everything at school is done with a lot of love,” she says. “It’s not important to do great things: what matters is that they are done with love. Everything else follows. I began my work with Programma il Futuro as a game, like all things that afterward become important.”

Leadership matters too. “The coach plays a fundamental role here: he has to teach his players very well what to do on the court to reach their goals,” says Marco Belinelli, the first Italian to win an NBA title in 2014 playing for the San Antonio Spurs, in a video in which he endorses Programma il Futuro, seeing similarities between coding and Basketball. “In my experience with basketball, I have learned that beyond individual talent, team playing is fundamental.”

In the video, Belinelli can be seen at the school he used to attend in San Giovanni in Persiceto, Bologna, playing a game schoolchildren have developed thanks to Programma il Futuro, teaching a bee to get nectar and make honey. “But the bee does not make mistakes!,” Belinelli says, comparing it to a basketball coach telling his players how to score.

Can the success of Programma Il Futuro be replicated elsewhere? Nardelli cautions about the temptation of applying the same formula to other countries and expecting the same results despite differences in culture and availability of resources.

But he highlights some key factors, including government backing and providing engaging material in local language. The latter is critical: a lot of effort by Programma il Futuro has gone towards translating Code.org materials.

Teaching Coding

Maurizio Boscaini, a computer science teacher since 1995, has been an early adopter of the tools offered by Programma Il Futuro. “With some very basic knowledge, my students learn to code,” he says during an interview at Istituto Tecnico Industriale Guglielmo Marconi, in Verona, in northern Italy.

Last year, a team of students led by Boscaini won a Programma il Futuro prize for an app they developed to educate the public about waste disposal and recycling. According to Boscaini, the current generation of students is more intuitive and feels at home with all things digital.

In Portogruaro, a city in the Veneto region, teacher Sandra Guerra observes a related shift in her students’ attention from computers towards smartphones. That’s a challenge, she says, as a computer offers a wider range of possibilities than a smartphone to benefit from a resource like Code.org.

Her students took a top Programma il Futuro prize for the MBot, a robot they built using coding they learned from Code.org. “It’s absolutely irreplaceable,” she says about Code.org as she displays the robot, a grinning little creature, on the desk in the computer science classroom.

Looking ahead

Programma il Futuro has done all this with just 100,000 euros annually, Nardelli says, smiling. That money pays his team of collaborators — Nardelli does not get paid by Programma il Futuro and lives on his salary as a university professor. “Imagine what we could do with ten times more,” he says. [Editor’s note: Programma il Futuro also accepts donations. You can donate here]

One of Nardelli’s next tasks is expanding Programma il Futuro by training more teachers. “That’s important because a teacher walks in to teach coding to these seven-year-old kids who know smartphones inside out and they get questions they may not be able to answer,” he concludes. Building up the capacity of teachers across all of Italy will be a challenge, one that Programma il Futuro — with its past successes — is certainly ready for.

-Leonardo Ortiz Villacorta, Code.org

Code.org® is dedicated to expanding access to computer science increasing participation by young women and students from other underrepresented groups.