National | GENERATIONAL CHANGE

Engineer's programming workshops help kids get expressive about coding

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

On weekdays, Daisuke Kuramoto, 36, is just another computer engineer who develops education materials for an e-learning content provider.

But once a month, he becomes Qramo, organizer of a computer programming workshop for children.

“If you say I am ‘teaching’ programming, that’s incorrect,” said Kuramoto, who heads the Tokyo-based volunteer group Otomo.

“At the workshop, I’m just a participant who loves to play around with programming.”

Kuramoto started the workshop in 2008 and launched Otomo the following year, recruiting professional programmers, computer science students, parents and others with a knack for the activity.

Demand for computer programming classes has been climbing ever since the education ministry announced it would become a mandatory subject for grade school by 2020.

Most of the classes available today are offered at cram schools and other organizations as an extracurricular activity. Otomo is one of those organizations.

Otomo invites about five to 10 elementary and junior high school students to his weekend workshops so they can write their own programs. When they have questions, volunteers drop clues to help them solve the problems on their own.

For Kuramoto, the key is for teachers to engage the students and work with them instead of just issuing instructions. And that’s what he hopes will be the case when the school system finally takes up computer programming.

“The important thing about programming education is to give them freedom and be creative about what they want to make, not to instruct them on how and what to do.”

The group’s name, in fact, was formed by combining the word otona (adult) with kodomo (child). Kuramoto said this refers to its goal — to have adults and children work together on an equal footing.

Admission to Otomo’s workshops is usually ¥1,000 — just enough to cover the facility costs. Computers and other devices used at the sessions are often borrowed for free from other organizations in the field.

Asked why has kept doing the workshop for the past eight years, Kuramoto simply said: “It’s just fun.

“We just like to see children having fun using computers,” he said. “When they get stuck, we give them a little clue. That helps them figure out the coding to create programs as they like. … That is pleasing enough for us to continue this activity.”

In September, Otomo invited seven elementary school students to Yoyogi Park in Tokyo for the group’s first open-air workshop session.

They were given tablet devices and told to compile a program to create a stop-motion picture from multiple images by using a graphical programming app called Pyonkee. The app is a derivative of Scratch, a visual programming tool developed by MIT Media Lab, a research arm of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At the beginning of the workshop, Kuramoto showed the children how to use the device and the app. After that, they were left to make their own decisions on what to film.

“If they consider me as a teacher even once, they may think I’m the person who is supposed to teach them programming from A to Z. That’s why I want them to call me Qramo, not Mr. Kuramoto,” he said.

“It’s easy for children to create a program just as the teachers tell them to. But that doesn’t allow them to create what they want to make after the workshop,” he said. “I want children to realize that a computer is a tool that allows them to be free in expressing their maximum creativity.”

Kuramoto formed this philosophy from his experience growing up as a self-motivated creator.

Born in 1980, Kuramoto’s first experience with computer programming was when he was 8 years old. While playing with the computer owned by his father, a Maritime Self-Defense Force officer, he found he liked creating computer games.

Despite his love of computers, however, Kuramoto’s dream was to become a doctor, carpenter or archaeologist.

“Programming was just one of my toys,” he said. “I love making things with my own hands. I loved to play with Lego blocks, and I even created a shelf to use at home … The only difference was whether it was a real object or computer code.”

His love for creation prompted him to enroll in the University of Tsukuba’s art program in 1999, where he used programming to create artwork.

By then, it was an integral part of his life. During his university years, Kuramoto worked as a visual disk jockey, arranging videos for nightclubs. During this time, he developed software that let him easily change visuals on screen.

Looking back, “all of these things have been a pleasure for me,” Kuramoto recalled. “I’ve always wanted to create something with my own hands . . . and programming was the easiest and the most convenient way to express myself.”

Kuramoto hopes the children who attend his workshops will view computer programming as a happy experience.

“It would be tragic if they are forced to learn programming only to achieve good scores on an exam or to find a job,” he said. “If you want to be a professional programmer, maybe Otomo is not for you. … We want children to realize that computers and smartphones are tools to express themselves, not merely to consume what others create.

“If you aren’t satisfied with things around you, you can always create things on your own. And that’s not difficult in today’s society, where everything is controlled by computers,” he said.


Key events in Kuramoto’s life

1988 – Begins programming on his father’s computer.
April 1993 – Joins junior high school computer club.
April 1999 – Enrolls in University of Tsukuba, School of Art and Design.
March 2004 – Enters Tokyo-based e-learning content producer Shubiki Corp.
August 2009 – Launches Otomo, a volunteer group that holds computer programming workshops for elementary and junior high school students.
May 2016 – Publishes computer programming textbook for elementary school students.

“Generational Change” is a series of interviews that appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp.

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