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Teaching kids to code: Michelle Sun's First Code Academy in Hong Kong

9 Sep 15  | CBSbutler
Teaching kids to code: Michelle Sun's First Code Academy in Hong Kong 

“Our mission is to empower the next generation to become creators with technology.”  
Michelle Sun is 28 years old, female, rather attractive – and a coder. To many, one of these descriptions does not quite fit with the others.

Recent months have seen a rise in the profile of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) fields, with viral campaigns like #iLookLikeAnEngineer, #iLookLikeAPhysicist and #DistractinglySexy trending globally for some time now. 

We have witnessed such incredible ignorance, met with such wonderful good humour, and slowly, slowly, we are seeing a shift in public perception: people are beginning to realise that girls can be geeks, too – and that we can be just as good at it as the boys.  

  Michelle is one of those brilliant, talented women doing her best to destroy the stereotypes which still, unfortunately, pervade many technical fields. 

Growing up in Hong Kong, she was fascinated by science and maths, but was not exposed to technology and programming until she graduated from the University of Chicago (economics major) and moved back to Hong Kong to take a job with Goldman Sachs, covering the technological sector. 
Her interest piqued, Sun began learning to code, and when her first start-up failed, she moved to San Francisco to attend Hackbright Academy, “the leading software engineering school for women,” and study coding full time.

"Coding is the next form of literacy; it's the next language everyone needs to learn how to speak." - Michelle Sun, First Code

“Coding is the next form of literacy,” Sun says. “It’s the next language everyone needs to learn how to speak. The same way a lot of people are learning Mandarin to do business in and with China, coding is the new language not just of business, but for life in our society.”

After graduating from the Hackbright boot-camp, Sun worked at high-growth Silicon Valley start-ups Bump Technologies and Buffer as a growth hacker, and volunteered her weekends teaching middle-school girls to code at a community program at Stanford University.

It was this weekend pastime which inspired Michelle to launch First Code Academy. “My students in that program expressed such a high level of creativity combined with technology,” she says. “I reflected on my primary and secondary education, and wished that I could share this opportunity with my younger self studying in Asia.”

Sun moved back to Hong Kong in 2013 and, in collaboration with Google’s Women Entrepreneurs Online, set up a one-day, girls-only coding workshop. Word spread and demand grew, and Sun and her team began to expand, operating more workshops, and teaching more and more young girls that technology and programming are not just cool, but rewarding and worthwhile professions. Before long, parents were asking Michelle to include boys in her classes, and First Code Academy was born.

    Since its inception in 2013, Michelle Sun’s First Code Academy has grown impressively, now focusing not only on revealing the wonders of tech to girls, but to all children. Originally based in Hong Kong, the company has recently expanded to include presences in Singapore, and is partnered with many multinational corporations, such as Google, to provide social impact projects teaching students from underprivileged areas how to code. 

Sun’s goal with First Code is to “empower digital natives to become creative leaders in the digital era” and “to provide students with the digital literacy and computational thinking skills [to] empower them to become creators with technology”. The Academy currently teaches more than 2000 students aged 6-18, split into three age-based streams. Each class has between 4 and 8 students, as the Academy strives to maintain a low student-teacher ratio to create an intimate, hands-on learning experience.

The first program, Tinker, teaches children aged 6-8, and ‘aims to instill the concept that technology is a creator’s tool [in] young, curious minds.’

The second, Explorer, for children aged 9-11, ‘aims to inspire technology-savvy primary school students to go beyond mobile and computer gaming, and move to creating their own games and apps, with an emphasis on creativity’.

The third and final class, Creator, is aimed at children 12+, and is intended to ‘equip teenagers with the necessary tools and concepts to bring their ideas to reality in the world on technology, with an emphasis on hands-on-development’, as well as ‘guiding students to deepen their understanding of key current topics in technology, [such as] privacy, security and social networking’.

Michelle notes that in the classes for younger children, the male:female ratio is usually fairly even, but that this changes in the early teen years, as the number of girls decreases. This trend shows that girls are interested in technology, but only until they are informed by society that it is ‘inappropriate’, ‘weird’ or ‘un-lady-like’ for a girl to be a technophile. The natural interest is there, but is quashed as girls grow up and begin to care about their public image.

"Encouragement and support to study STEM needs to begin early both in school and at home," said Lisa Moore, research and advocacy manager for the Women’s Foundation. "Girls who show an early interest in the field often lose interest because of pervasive but under-recognised biases in the learning environment."

This unfortunate reality is borne out by the number of women choosing STEM at the undergraduate level in Hong Kong. In 2014, only 33% of Hong Kong STEM-field graduates were female: a drop from 34% the previous year. The Women’s Foundation plans to launch a study later this year into why Hong Kong girls are steering clear of STEM subjects.

In the UK, things are hardly better. Currently, just 15% of Engineering graduates, 19% of Computer Science graduates and 38% of Maths graduates are female. A mere 13% of the UK STEM workforce is female.

  Michelle has a theory that Asia is, in some ways, the perfect environment from which to spawn a new generation of coders. “Asia ranks high for math, science, and other disciplines that fit well with programming,” she says, “but the people graduating today weren’t exposed to it soon enough. 

We need to start much earlier than the university level. Just as kids tend to learn new languages better than adults, they can learning programming as just another hobby.” 

However, she acknowledges that certain cultural norms in Asia have the opposite effect: not only do scientific-sector careers suffer from a low status, but any form of failure is frowned upon, which makes learning to code – very much a trial-and-error process – difficult and unappealing.

Noel Ho Ka-mui, external vice-chairwoman of the Computer Science Association Engineering Society at the University of Hong Kong, explains that “in general, in Hong Kong, [the] first choice is business, then to be a doctor or a lawyer, and then the very last [choice] is studying science”.

Ho describes how the majority of her female classmates were discouraged by the perceived loneliness of, and slightly derogatory attitude towards, programming jobs, and planned to go into the more people-oriented areas of business, such as marketing or HR.

Ho’s fellow chairman, Ron Tam Hoi-kit, shares her belief that societal pressure and public perception often deters young students, particularly women, from science and IT-related careers, along with limited job opportunities.

"In Hong Kong, if a teenager is interested in IT, they will be marked as a geek," he said. "This won't be solved by the government pushing a lot of funding to technology but by building a better image of technology and IT guys."

Of course, this is not a phenomenon exclusive to the Asian continent. Across the world, women are under-represented in STEM fields. Women still face negative attitudes and even disbelief that they are technologically capable. It is only with the continued efforts of women like Michelle Sun and Isis Wenger, among many others, that the reality of STEM as a male-dominated area will begin to change.

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