Computer games for twelve-year-olds might seem a world away from a career in banking, finance or computing, but for some students in India they offer a gateway to vital skills that often aren’t well taught in schools.

Basic programming logic imparted through games form part of Tata Consultancy Services’ (TCS) initiative to develop computer science skills at school age and improve employability. The company’s schemes also foster soft skills and provide a stepping-stone to the sophisticated programming languages used in the IT industry.

The initiative is part of TCS’s wider push to bolster technology education, with the ultimate aim of making graduates better suited for the workplace and helping to close the industry’s digital-skills gap. And the program is being extended to even younger children, with the introduction of games, which start with the animation of farm animals.

“In today’s world, you cannot really exist without a basic functioning knowledge of IT, so it’s essential for success in any industry,” says Sumitra Ghose, director of the program for TCS. “It is incumbent on IT leaders like TCS to improve the quality of the IT workforce.”

Digital literacy

As technology advances at a rapid pace, the digital requirements of most jobs have increased. A report from the McKinsey Global Institute predicts global demand for advanced IT and programming skills will grow as much as 90% between 2016 and 2030. And it’s not just the tech industries that are set to be lagging, with requirements for basic digital skills also soaring.

“As AI and automation become a core part of each sector, companies will need to significantly increase their tech talent, well beyond what they may have had in the past,” the report says. “Workers in all corporate functions are expected to improve their digital literacy over the next three years.”

Sumitra launched the TCS program in 2006 with 68 students aged 16 and 17 years old. Since then, demand for the initiative has grown and new courses – delivered via the cloud – target even younger children, stripping the learning back to the most basic level to improve the quality along the whole age spectrum. Since inception, more than 24,500 students have benefitted. It now reaches as many as 6,000 students a year.

In the first stage, children as young as eight years old follow steps to animate a horse, by making it neigh or swish its tail. When they’ve mastered that, they move on to another animal and eventually build a fully animated farmyard.

The program also teaches them to use the concept of loop, by making the horse swish its tail 10 times, or in a different game, making the blades of a windmill rotate a certain number of times. Other concept topics teach children how to apply the concepts of say “if” and “then”.

“We focus on the logical thinking that is required,” Sumitra says. “In the process of animating these small animals and other objects, they begin to learn programming, without actually doing programming.”

After the initial phase, LaunchPad1, students move on to LaunchPad2, which teaches programming logic in C++ and Python using a game format.

For instance, students watch video instructions and answer short quizzes in programming to unlock parts of a spaceship. On successful completion of the final quiz, students will be able to launch the rocket. They will also have been introduced to the fundamental concepts of C++ and Python. The program is learner-centric, allowing students to take quizzes as many times as required until they have mastered the concepts.

Such activities prepare them for advanced levels (InsighT) that they reach when they’re 16 or 17 years old and begin tackling advanced programming in C++ and Python. This Prepares students for college and a life in IT. The programs take them through the software development life cycle with an emphasis on application.

Going global

Twelve years on from the launch, the advantages are clear for all to see. Plenty of people who benefitted from the program now work at TCS – and many at other IT companies – and program graduates often return to their own schools to inspire the next generation.

Putting the programs on the cloud has helped overcome many of the problems of geographical reach, and while the main focus so far has been on India, it’s now very transportable and has been used in Muscat in Oman, as well as in Singapore. In rural areas, where connectivity can be an issue, learning can be done offline using a CD, with online access only needed for end-of-program tests.

“I would like to see it go to areas where people find it difficult to get jobs,” Sumitra says. “In some areas of Central America and Africa, these are prime places where the program could create a lot of opportunities.”

Improving education is also helping to address gender imbalances, Sumitra says, citing a school in a semi-urban location in Kanchipuram, where the program has inspired girls – who are often first-generation learners – by imparting life skills as well as IT skills. Children like these who are introduced to the program are more likely to go on to higher education and employment.

And the skills learnt aren’t just relevant to the IT industry. Confidence and soft skills are fostered, providing essential qualifications for the future. Almost every country has a growing skills gap to bridge. There will be about 4.4 million jobs in the United States that require IT skills by 2024 and, in Europe, a British Chamber of Commerce study shows 75% of UK businesses have a shortage.

“Having IT skills is like having a pen,” Sumitra says. “You can write a mathematical equation. You can draw a portrait, you can write a poem. It depends how you want to use it.”