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by Tim Phillips

“Kids sometimes think computer science is boring and complicated, so why do it when they can play soccer?” Marta Gehring, the co-founder and CEO of TechSpark Academy, jokes. “My mission is to open their eyes.”

Based in Lausanne, TechSpark Academy’s mission is to expose students to coding in a fun, interactive way during school vacations. The Academy uses the best student instructors to spark their excitement and give them the skill they will need in the future. Last year’s students came away from it calling it “interesting”, “awesome”, “informative” and “cool”.

Marta, who is an innovation marketing consultant and a trainer for Switzerland’s Committee for Technological Innovation (CTI), was inspired to create TechSpark Academy after seeing her 14-year-old daughter’s attitude to coding transformed by a similar summer course in the US. “At first she said she didn’t want to go, but on the first day she came back and she was very excited. She had already programmed a turtle to crawl from one edge of the screen to the other, and she was even talking about computer code at dinner.”

Why attend a TechSpark Academy Camp?

The Academy’s Easter or summer camps in Lausanne or Geneva are some of the most inspiring fun kids can have while you’re learning. “By the second day the kids are beginning to program for themselves. For example, they can use a language called Swift to make a game, and then play it on their own iPhone,” Marta says, “or they can build robots, and program them to avoid obstacles.”

“Our teachers were cool and fun to work with,” says a student from 2016. Another says that TechSpark Academy was “fun and helps you get through summer days which otherwise might be you sitting at home watching TV or your smart phone.”

“They’re so cool,” says a third, “we literally made ROBOTS!”

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If you thought that computer science classes were a punishment when you were at school, or even remember being forced to type lines of code without understanding why, the range of courses that TechSpark Academy offers will come as a shock. In the 2017 Easter and summer camps there are digital photography and film-making, 3D printing, app and game development, and its newest course: hacking and defense. And, of course, students can literally make ROBOTS!

Serious fun

There’s a serious reason to learn code too. Research from Australia in 2015 found that seven out of ten of our children are preparing for careers that will not exist in the future. Overwhelmingly other three will be learning the digital skills that are becoming a fundamental part of most jobs. Learning to code has quickly become an important life skill. It teaches critical decision-making, cause and effect, patience, self-criticism and persistence. “Everybody,” Steve Jobs, the late CEO of Apple, once said, “should learn how to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.”

And yet few schools in Switzerland — or elsewhere — have the resources or the teachers to provide this type of education. Globally, our society needs hundreds of thousands of future employees with digital skills. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, says that “there just aren’t enough people who are trained and have these skills today.”

The students who attend TechSpark’s camps or take a course do not need any previous experience in programming computers, and can be any age from the age of nine upwards. They get intensive instruction — for every five students there is one instructor. These instructors are drawn from the nearby EPFL student population. They are selected for their enthusiasm for a specific computer language or course, but also for their ability to inspire the kids and pass on their own enjoyment of the subject.

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Catching the coding bug

Whether it’s games or computer security, from the first hour of the first day the focus is on experimenting, being hands-on and creative. On day one students are programming for themselves, and by the third morning they are picking their own projects and creating their own software. “On the last day, parents can come in during the afternoon and see what their kids have done. This is a great success. The parents are absolutely delighted and the kids are super proud,” Marta explains.

Students take away a certificate that describes what programming languages they learned and what they achieved, and they also get personalized feedback from their instructor. Courses are taught in English (the global language of the technology business) and, for some students, TechSpark Academy also offers scholarships as a discount off the price of a course.

Be prepared for your kids to catch the coding bug, whatever their background. As one of TechSpark’s former students posted: “It was the best camp ever and really made me want to continue this type of thing.” One of the ambitions of the organizers of TechSpark Academy is to show that coding offers an exciting challenge for everyone. Teens or younger kids, girls or boys, students who want to learn a job skill or those who just want to enjoy discovering something new. “If I hadn't forced my daughter to do it, she wouldn't have gone,” Marta says, “but now I see what she has learned and I think, ‘wow, what happened here?’”

Author's bio
Tim Phillips is a freelance journalist and editor who has written about innovation and technology for The Wall Street Journal Europe, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, Management Today and Fast Company, among others. He is also the author of 12 books including Knockoff: The Deadly Trade in Counterfeit Goods, Scoring Points and Fit to Bust: How Great Companies Fail (all Kogan Page).

Tim is currently editor of The Economy, published by The CORE Project (http://core-econ.org), which is an open-access economics syllabus taught to undergraduates at universities including at University College London, Sciences Po, Paris, and Columbia University. He is a copy editor for VoxEU.org, the policy portal of the Centre for Economic Policy Research, and an associate at Enlightenment Economics.

He studied economics and mathematics at the University of Manchester, Birkbeck, University of London, and University College London

TechSpark Academy
Marta Gehring
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Easter Camps: 18 - 21 April 2017: Champittet, Lausanne
Summer Camps: 10 - 14 July 2017: Institut Florimont, Petit-Lancy (Geneva)
Summer Camps: 14 - 18 August 2017: Champittet, Lausanne