firetech_interview

Back when I was school, teaching methods were still reliant on old technologies. We used hot plates and weights, just to give you an idea of how thrilling my final year of physics was, but no one wanted to use games for teaching. Nowadays, Minecraft seems to have pervaded schools as a legitimate tool for getting concepts into kids heads, but here in Perth, we’ve gone one step further. Firetech Camp runs a number of courses to get kids into things like drones and electronics through using games as an entry point. Naturally, I had to know more, so I caught up with Andrea for chat about how rad Firetech really is.

 

What is Firetech Camp?


 
Firetech camp is a technical education provider for kids. We take the approach that kids have an endless ability to learn, so we focus on leveraging that and exposing them to as much leading edge technology as we can as early as possible.

 

How do games help in achieving that learning process?


 
We have all been taught poorly. I think everyone has had a terrible experience with a teacher, and we don’t learn anything the way it’s currently taught in that ‘you will learn this’, ‘you will learn that’ methodology. I think the view of being able to engage kids through games is actually the ability to give them a rich experience that already teaches them something. They take something away from the experience, not just a, “oh, I had to learn this” but “oh, this is really cool, I can see an application for this”.

We look at it as living within a context. There is some far better terminology around the educational system that could be used, but if you’re trying to teach something to anyone, child or not, and you’re able to show them an application for it, it’s a far better way of getting the message across, and games are brilliant at that. For example, we use Minecraft to teach physics. I studied the old fashioned way with weights, but there wasn’t a lot of magic in the process. Now you have a system that gives you endless combinations of getting a simple process as gravity or a pulley system, and you can get the child themselves to create their own version of that expression of what that particular physics law should be. That’s fantastic. It’s a far better way of getting kids engaged and talking about science, engineering and mathematics than ever before.

 
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Contextualising all those laws.


 
Yes, absolutely. If you look at our video game design course as an example, we use Construct 2 to teach our kids, and it’s a brilliant tool because you start to have conversations around x- and y-axes, then kids discover a z-axis and go, “What is that z-axis!? I was never told about this!” Particularly the kids interested in the STEM fields, it just blows their minds. We could have taught it just by drawing on a board, but instead we designed a Flappy Bird type game and they went, “Oh my god, I love this, I really wanna learn more!” You’d be amazed.

We really believe that there is an endless ability for kids to understand very complex concepts. I’ve taught a lot of software development to adults during my career, and we are pre-disposed as adults at a certain point to shut down and find things too hard. Kids don’t have that. Kids are sponges. They love to learn, and as long as we deliver it in a fun and engaging way, they will pick it up and run with it.

 

What do your courses offer? You’ve alluded to teaching kids physics and engineering, but what are you actually getting them to sit down and do?


 
All our courses are project-based, so, goal-oriented tasks. We’ll never run a course like ‘Introduction to Java’, we say, “Right, come and code a game” or “Come and build a mobile app”, “Come and build your own drone”, and the idea is that -for want of a better term- we hide the veggies in the sauce. What I mean by that is that in the process of doing these really cool things, we pack it in with as much science and interaction with that subject for the kids, so that they walk away with a really great experience of going home saying, “Hey mum and dad, I did this! Today I built an app!”.

We just had one of our kids who built an app to take back to their school to help kids gather learning resources. That was done in two days. Before that, they had zero knowledge of building a mobile app. Because of the tools we use and the excitement and knowledge that they poured into that project, it’s been picked up and is going through the school to be approved. For us, it’s about giving the kids a goal, and then through that goal and achieving that goal, we teach them all the skills necessary.

 
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Do you look at the curriculum and see what you can we teach that through making games or making apps?


 
It’s a really interesting landscape in Australia in particular because coding is coming into the curriculum in 2018. There’s too much effort in talking about ‘coding’ in the same way the government was telling us that we should all learn French. It’s a great initiative, but really, we’ve all been through learning a language, and programming is no different. I’m talking to you in a completely second language, I’m Italian born and bred. I had to learn English, and I know through my own experience that the only way I could get fluent in the language was by having a context in which to use it.

We actually look at what we’re doing and see how we can relate it back to the curriculum rather than the other way round. Right now, the curriculum isn’t really offering us, from a technical perspective, the connection points that we were looking for to be able to do that. Having said that, we do an awful lot around the soft skills, like understanding communications and teamwork, negotiating conflict, understanding trouble solving, all that stuff. The whole point of any STEM related project is that troubleshooting something very much comes to the fore.

That’s how we’ve taken the approach, but we recently hired a national curriculum manager whose sole role right now is to bring that alignment into play and be ahead of the curve in terms of being able to set us up in that direction.

 
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Do you guys solely focus on STEM related fields, or are you willing to look into Arts as well?


 
We call our courses STEAM, and the A, funnily enough, stands for Arts. We offer digital music, digital photography, wearable technology, which is a really cool thing where kids get to design their own backpacks and then bring them alive using Arduino-esque circuit boards. They basically make LED’s pop up on stuff, and you can do some pretty clever things.

We take a professional approach, so, for example, our digital photography course will be taught by digital photographers, actual photographers who do this for a living, and the idea is to teach kids how to frame shots and things like that. So, yeah, we definitely focus on Arts too.

 


 
Yes! We do incursions and a lot of support work for the teachers themselves. We do a lot of what’s known as ‘professional development’, because we’re very passionate about ensuring that coding is a very unique skill. A lot of the principles I’ve been talking to will say, “Oh, that’s probably something our science teacher will do,” but it’s a very different thing to teaching science. There’s a whole language and a context in how to teach coding properly and getting the key messages across.
Unfortunately, I’ve been witness to a few sessions where it’s been done quite badly, so, there is some work to be done. There’s a lot of, “That thing has to move 5 spaces,” but that thing has a name, and moving it has a name, so, you probably should have done your homework.

 
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Do you do anything beyond school level stuff? Workplaces, for instance?


 
Well, we go from 9-17, so we do primary and secondary school. We’ve had a lot of interest from adults themselves, particularly our drone courses. We get a lot of adults who’ll say, “Forget my kid, I wanna do that”. We’ve certainly had demand, but I think it’s a very different marketplace when you get into that area. We’re having a lot of fun being kids ourselves, so we’ll probably stick to that for a while, but there’s no reason why in the future we wouldn’t consider it.

Workplace incursions are something- like, for example, I used to work for Western Power, and we used to have workplace incursions, so it’s definitely something that we want to look at, particularly because it’s a very good bonding experience. If you do parent and son or parent and daughter sessions where kids get to build a drone together, that’d be very very cool.

 

Do you guys make your own tools?


 
Yes, we do. I keep mentioning the drone… The drone was an idea of mine, or a brainchild of mine, whatever you want to call it. It was a very interesting because we sat down and thought, “Right, how do we make drones cool? Well, they are cool, but how do we make it easy?” There’s a lot of prefabricated stuff out there, but we wanted to try and take an approach where the kids actually see what it means to fly a drone. A drone, technically, by the basic laws of flight should not work. It has no traction, it has no wing, it’s purely about centripetal force which lifts it.

So, we went away and invested quite a bit of money trying to work out a simple to use custom-made drone design that kids themselves could put together. You’d be surprised when you try, when you give yourself only a screwdriver and no soldering iron, it’s quite a limited kit with regards to what you can and can’t do. We were quite pleased with the outcome, and it’s been a great success for us.

 
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Would you say that you often limit what these guys can do so that they have more of a direction of where to go?


 
Well, you can never limit a child, I’ll say that. I think it’s more around getting the right experience. Like, for example, if I had to bring a soldering iron into a room to show a 10 year old child how to build a drone, that would be a barrier, obviously, to a number of parents. So, we try and put the kids in a position where they can maximise the enjoyment in what they’re doing. That really only applies to engineering or robotics. When we’re talking about programming or Minecraft or any of the other STEM related stuff that we do, the tools are very much the same tools you and I use.

One thing we are very focused on is exposing the kids to as many tools as possible. We don’t like the idea of having one tool and THAT is what you’re using. For our Minecraft course, there are four or five different tools, three at a time. Things from world editing tools, where in a few clicks they’ll create an entire world, to world painting. We’ll have 3D modelling tools that they’ll use, again on the Minecraft side of things where they’ll literally go and draw a 3D image and we’ll talk to them about what a 3D image is and talk about computer aided modelling, and then they’ll get to import it. And they do everything. There is not a tutor standing over them saying, “Now click this,” it’s very much an exploration process.

 
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The game is the entry.


 
Exactly, and you’d be surprised how much the kids just pick up, and then they become little leaders themselves. A lot of the kids will get up and go over to someone and say, “Let me show you how to do this,” you know? They trade ideas and before you know it, you’ve got a startup table. This is what I mean by they are endless, their ability to think outside the box is limitless. It seems to be that as we grow older, we just limit ourselves by society, but these kids have no barriers, no fear of failure. Flearning (learning through failure) is very much their modus operandi, and it’s what we do as humans, so why stop it? We encourage it.

And one of the reasons – from that – is that we also encourage exposure to other technologies. When we run our holiday camps, we run on pods, so we’ll have a table of ten kids here and a table of ten kids there, and the children are encouraged to get up and walk around. Go look at whatever you want, go see what else you’re interested in, you might have only come here for Minecraft, but you might never have thought about robotics. Then they started thinking, “Huh, that’s really cool, why don’t we do that?”

 

Do you guys delve much deeper that that? Even though games are the entry point, do you then go into really complex technologies?


 
Oh, yeah, absolutely. The process for us is very much about learning streams. We start all kids on an easy learning stream, so, like, robotics will be using the Ozobot, which is a very hands-on tactile tool that kids can get a reward from. Then as they get more interested, we make it progressively harder, all the way to creating your own Arduino based robot that have you have to program in Objective C. You’ve made a very big jump from where you started.

It’s the same thing with Minecraft; we use it at the entry point as an educational tool, and then we teach Python and electronics using Minecraft, which teaches kids about switches and conductors and Python programming in one course.

 
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Sounds brutal!


 
It is. Well, kids love it because they’ll come, they’ll do it and then they’re hungry for more. That’s what I mean about there is no barrier of learning. The only barrier is an element of guiding so as not to burn the kids too early. You can expose a child to coding in its concepts and principles, but if you go to a 9 year old child with a scripting language without researching how you’re going to approach it, you’re going to very quickly put that subject into the I-don’t-wanna-know-about-it category in the child’s head.

So, we take a very adaptive approach, and we’re constantly talking to the parents to make sure that the child is enjoying themselves and that the child is being pushed enough. We don’t want to strain them, but we don’t want them sitting around picking their noses.

 

It’s kind of the opposite of uni, where they’ll go, “Yup. Better keep up.”


 
Yeah, it’s about looking at the child. We do a successful Saturday club for Python, and we’ve got some really talented kids. We’ve got a pool of about 11 kids who come, and one or two are a couple years away from being viable candidates for a programming job. They’ve got that logical thinking, that computational thinking approach to life, they really are very good at adapting. It’s more like, “Right, you want to learn this? I will now extend you and push you to think,” because that’s really what we’re teaching.

It’s a great experience, but all along, one of the main things underneath is your ability to get from A to B and resolve issues. Whether you’re doing it through a puzzle or robotics, engineering, wiring a backpack, making a funky hat. The reality is, we’re teaching you really strong skills and understanding how object-oriented programming works, computational thinking is required and we’re trying to get from A to B.

 
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What’s this been like doing all this in Perth? Firetech Camp originally came from England, so why didn’t they go for, say, Melbourne or Sydney?


 
Well, the main reason is that Jill Hodges is the founder of Firetech Camp, and we shared a great deal of vision around what’s missing from our kid’s education. The main reasons we started in Perth is because – well, A, I’m here, and when I started here, a lot of people came up to me saying I should have started in Sydney or Melbourne. I actually think Perth is a secret gem, particularly for the technology and gaming world. You’ve got a highly collaborative group of people here. I lived and worked in London for 16 years, so I get how the big cities work, and I can tell you that if you want to start a business, you can do a lot worse than starting in Perth.

You have access to some fantastic people. A lot of my staff are from the gaming world, and I’ve found them to be the most collaborative, most knowledgable and the most understanding in what a challenge it is to get a business off the ground. I have conversations with my guys where they’ll turn around and say, “No, we shouldn’t spend that money,” and I’ve never worked in a business where someone’s said that to the boss! Usually they go, “Yeah! No problem!” I remember we had a trip planned to attend an event in Adelaide, and both my guys went, “Nope, we don’t need to do that. Let’s focus here and then we’ll go there.”

 

So, you’re pretty close with the local scene, then?


 
We are. We were a sponsor at Perth Games Festival, we got some fantastic feedback from that, and would really love to take more of an active role in trying to grow the scene here. I think the biggest challenge any scene has is gathering the right attention.

You can learn more about Firetech Camp and their courses (some starting in January!) at their website: http://www.firetechcamp.com.au/

Nick Ballantyne

Nick Ballantyne

Managing Editor at GameCloud
Nick lives in that part of Perth where there's nothing to do. You know, that barren hilly area with no identifying features and no internet? Yeah, that part. To compensate, he plays games, writes chiptunes, makes videos, and pokes fun at hentai because he can't take anything seriously.
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