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Computer coding on the rise as vital skill

By CHENG YINGQI | China Daily | Updated: 2017-01-19 07:37

There was a time in the 1980s and '90s when just being able to type and speak English would give a fresh graduate an edge in China's job market.

Now, with computers integral to almost every industry, more schools, including some kindergartens, are determined to give students a grounding in a vital new skill: coding.

"As Deng Xiaoping put it, education starts with children. So should computer sciences," said Song Xinbo, who teaches the subject at Sun Yat-sen Memorial Secondary School in Zhongshan, Guangdong province.

His class of teenagers made waves last year by achieving the second-highest score in a coding test set by Hacker-Rank, a US-based website, beating more than 120 other schools and universities, including Canada's University of Waterloo and University of California, Berkeley.

The team of 41 students-about 1 percent of the number enrolled at the school-take coding as an optional class and spend two hours a day training for coding contests.

"I started to code at age 12," said Cai Ziyi, 18, a student at Sun Yat-sen. "In the beginning, I was just interested in computers and had little knowledge of information science. But my interest grew as I gained a more comprehensive understanding, and then I thirsted for more. Plus, the contests have brought opportunities to meet some really smart students."

China holds annual coding contests at the provincial and national levels, and gold and silver medal winners earn a better shot at applying for prestigious Chinese universities, such as Tsinghua, Peking or Fudan.

Each year, four prospects are chosen from tens of thousands to compete in the International Olympiad in Informatics, which is a ticket to the world's top colleges.

Chen Qifeng, 27, received a scholarship to Hong Kong University of Science and Technology after winning gold at the Olympiad in 2007. Chen is now pursuing a PhD at Stanford University."

The medal gave me a better chance at getting into a top university and to do research with outstanding professors," said Chen, who also won gold at consecutive national competitions between 2005 and 2007. "In general, programming contests prepare you for the challenging research required for computer sciences. It helped me build solid programming skills and a strong problem-solving ability."

Companies have already spotted the market potential for high-tech toys and basic coding tutorials.

Lego, the Danish toymaker, has released Boost, a set designed for ages 7 and above that lets children build and program a robot, priced at $160. The robot-coding sets WeDo (for ages 6 and over) and EV3 (ages 8 to 12), have proved popular in China and are being used as teaching tools at home and in extracurricular classes.

The Lego store on Tmall, the online shopping mall, has sold 13 EV3 sets in the past 30 days, each costing 3,699 yuan ($540). Sales data show the top 10 sellers on online marketplace Taobao have sold a total of more than 800 sets in the past month.

"We've noticed schools are pinning more importance on coding, and many kindergartens have set up special corners where children can play with high-tech toys," said Zhu Weisong, CEO of Shanghai Putao Technology.

His company is among those making coding more accessible to infants through animation and games, such as Hello, an iPad app that uses augmented reality and requires players to map a route using directional blocks, which trains their logical thinking.

"The new generation are exposed to electronic products at an early age. Why not use these products to educate them?" Zhu said.

Simon Lance, managing director of Hays China, a global recruitment company, said coding is not yet a standard requirement for nontechnology positions, but "since technology impacts traditional job functions, a candidate with a strong background in technology is likely to be able to explore a much wider variety of career paths".

Cai, the student at Sun Yat-sen, is preparing for the national college entrance exam at his school. He said coding classes have meant extra pressure, but he is positive about the future.

"I'm not sure what kind of job I'll do because I'm still young," he said. "What I am sure about is that the experience of participating in the coding contests will have a lasting effect, no matter what I do."

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