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In NYC, PwC Rolls Out Robots to Help Students Learn Tech

leonkaye headshotWords by Leon Kaye
Data & Technology
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The future workforce offers students little choice but to embrace and learn technology. By 2020, nearly 80 percent of all jobs will require some technological skills, and estimates suggest there could be one million more tech jobs than applicants who can fill them here in the U.S.

What can be done to get students inspired about technology at a young age? PwC believes it has an idea.

PwC says in order to inspire both students and teachers, they must become more engaged with technology. But this isn’t necessarily happening in many classrooms across the U.S. Beginning in a New York City classroom this month, PwC has rolled out CODE-E, a life-size robot designed to interact with kids with the goal to spark their interest in technology.

TriplePundit recently interviewed Shannon Schuyler, Chief Purpose Officer and Responsible Business Leader at PwC and President of the PwC Charitable Foundation to learn more about this program.

3p: What inspired this project? Intuitively, few see an obvious connection between a Big Four firm and robotics.

Schuyler: This project was inspired by the fact that there is a shortage of talent with digital skills, particularly in underserved communities.  A half million jobs in computing are currently open with an estimated one million more computing jobs than applicants who can fill them within the next year. We want to close that gap.  To do it, we need to prepare a future workforce with digital and tech skills, which means we need young people to fall in love with technology. Not with devices -- lots of kids are obsessed with their mobile phones, tablets and game consoles -- but with the technology skills that will continue to transform the way we work and live: computer science, data analytics and robotics.

When we were thinking about how to ignite students’ passion in technology, we thought about how parents sit with their children to read them books from a young age. When parents think about technology, they often just hand over an iPad and walk away from their kids, knowing they will be distracted by the screen for a while. But when we teach technology, we need to think about creating a more personal connection by sharing stories, sparking imaginations and making learning both fun and real. We thought a way to bring technology to life was to bring a walking, talking robot to the students. The students can interact with it, and we can show them how it works and then answer their questions.

3p: There are doubts about the effectiveness of having robots in the classroom. Can you mention research that indicates this technology can make a difference in the classroom?

Schuyler: We know that in the private sector we have the unique insight, expertise, and financial resources to provide the support that teachers across grade levels tell us they’re lacking, and the ability to try new teaching techniques with a fail fast and change quickly mindset. Right now, we are trying something new by bringing CODE-E into classrooms.

From our work and conversations with educators, and through the study on teachers’ ability to teach tech skills, we also know that as technology quickly evolves, teachers need professional development, classroom curricula, and resources to engage their students actively—and creatively— with technology to imagine its possibilities and impact. They’ve asked us for help devising ways to excite their students, so we’re working with them to make sure CODE-E can provide the experience they need.

3p: Can you share examples of how this technology has made a difference, either by inspiring students or teachers?

Schuyler: The first time we brought CODE-E to a school, the students sat in their seats and listened to CODE-E talk, and then they brainstormed ways technology could change something in their lives. The students had a hard time coming up with ideas and quickly lost interest. So, our teams put their heads together and revised the lessons to heighten their empathy skills by enabling students to have a conversation with CODE-E, and to increase engagement in the lesson by prompting them to think about how they could solve a problem they face personally in their school using technology.

By our third school visit, to the Academy for Software Engineering (AFSE) in New York City, we urged students to focus on something practical they would like to change. The students got excited and immediately started churning out ideas: an app to let students know when a seat was available in the overcrowded cafeteria at lunchtime, an automated system to provide access to the restrooms, and a digital system to check them in every morning so they could spend less time waiting in line, and more time learning in the classroom. When the students left, they were cheering and brimming with ideas. The math and science teacher we worked with at that school, Jonathan Rothman, emailed us a couple weeks after the visit to thank us for bringing so much curiosity and excitement to the classroom. He said his students are still talking about CODE-E and students who aren’t in his class keep swinging by asking if the robot is coming back so they can meet it.

3p: The challenge of using tech in schools is ongoing. What else is PwC doing on this front?

It is indeed a big challenge! In a recent PwC study, conducted in conjunction with the Business-Higher Education Forum, we found that while educators strongly support teaching technology, very few — just 10 percent — feel confident doing so. One of the biggest issues is that teachers don’t have these technology skills themselves, so they don’t feel confident teaching them! We realized that before educators can teach their students about complex digital concepts, they need to understand those concepts themselves.

To help give teachers professional development they need, we developed a customized version of PwC’s Digital Fitness App, a mobile platform that helps explain digital subjects to teachers. We worked with six teachers and eight graduate students to review the app and help us develop content.

Starting today, January 16th, we’re giving teachers free access to the app. After they download the app from the app store, teachers complete a digital assessment that evaluates their current digital acumen. Then teachers receive a list of recommended resources to educate them about digital topics, such as coding, data analytics and machine learning.

Image credits: PwC