For ten years, an Estonian program called ProgeTiger has taught students from the earliest ages about programming and robotics while nurturing a cadre of educators to help them along the way. Though technology has changed rapidly over the past decade, program leaders and associates maintain that they are constantly making improvements that will see ProgeTiger achieve its objectives for years to come.
“Artificial intelligence is here to stay, and the education system must adapt accordingly,” says Kirke Kasari, ProgeTiger’s program manager.
She notes that AI has been included in the program’s educational materials for several years, and relevant topics have been discussed in program workshops. Since AI has received more attention over the past year, it has been focused on more in ProgeTiger.
Starting this fall, Kasari said that ProgeTiger would organise several “bite-sized learning materials,” such as videos with interactive elements, for students around AI, centred around topics such as how AI is changing education, how artificial intelligence helps scientists and the ethical dilemmas of artificial intelligence.
“The goal of both the educational materials created by us and the education system, in general, should be to explain the risks of artificial intelligence to students,” says Kasari, “but at the same time guide them to coexist with AI successfully.”
ProgeTiger has existed since 2012 and has always familiarised Estonian students with new technology, from kindergarten through high school. Fostering a network of educators who could teach compellingly programming, robotics, and associated topics to children has also been a goal. The program has prepared curriculum materials from the get-go and sought to teach programming using Blue-Bot, LEGO, Dash and Dot, and other robots. The program has been a success, but it quickly outgrew its narrow focus on creating instructional materials.
For the past five years, for example, ProgeTiger has organised a student event to raise interest in technology. In these annual events, students can challenge themselves by solving tasks on programming, robotics, digital art, and safety during their studies or in an extracurricular hobby group.
More than 50,000 students have participated in these events since their inception, and as of 2023, almost all educational institutions have participated in ProgeTiger’s activities. With such widespread adoption, there is a great responsibility to deliver, Kasari notes, and ProgeTiger has worked to build up a network of educators, universities, and other organizations that can pool expertise to improve the program.
This has led to improvements in program materials and outreach and a more deeply informed effort. “In technology education, it is especially important always to be one or two steps ahead,” says Kasari.
In the future, ProgeTiger would also like to create materials tailored to different educational groups.
“If technology education is dealt with in schools today at a very different level, we hope that in the future, every student, regardless of their location, will have access to high-quality IT education,” says Kasari.
Since its inception, ProgeTiger has been financed through the Ministry of Education and Research and the EU via the European Social Fund. According to Kasari, the current financing period for the program is drawing to a close, and ProgeTiger will now begin a second period. The program has also ordered an impact study to understand its impact on IT education and knowledge, which it will use to inform future activities. This fall, ProgeTiger will continue its work to direct students toward an IT education.
“We are ending the current program while preparing for a new one,” remarks Kasari. “Our financial model will change next year, but our activities will continue.”
The trajectory only seems to be up. Kasari notes that the COVID-19 pandemic also impacted how ProgeTiger was received by Estonian educators. While some teachers were sceptical about the need for IT education for young students — who already spent perhaps too much time engaging with smartphones, for example — the pandemic proved that having IT skills in an era of remote work and education was necessary.
Building on this increased interest, Kasari hopes that IT education will be mandated in schools in a few years. She also hopes that more informatics and physics teachers will enter the workforce and join the ProgeTiger network.
Teaching critical thinking hand in hand with technology
Kristi Salum is an educational technologist at Gustav Adolf Grammar School in Tallinn and previously served as a program manager for ProgeTiger. She has seen the program develop over the past decade and, like Kasari, has been impressed by its growth in scope.
“At the start, this program was a kind of coincidence,” Salum says. “There was an idea to work with some teachers and schools and to develop materials for programming and robotics,” she says. But this under-the-radar effort didn’t stay quiet for long, and international media soon feasted on the idea of Estonia teaching programming to kindergartners. With the rise in profile, there came an equivalent rise in ambition.
“We have reached the point that most teachers or schools are somehow connected to the program,” comments Salum.
Teaching children technology, she notes, can be in some ways easier than teaching adults. Children are not afraid of such topics in the way that some teachers are. So reaching and better educating teachers is also a continued goal, as is keeping up with constant technological change. Teaching methods and strategies have also changed over the past decade, Salum points out, though teaching about technology also has to be fun and inspiring to succeed. There are also more willing pupils these days.
“At first, it just attracted people who were first adopters,” Salum says about ProgeTiger. “It has changed positively.”
And as for any challenges posed by AI, Salum is confident that if children can feel comfortable with technology from an early age, they will not be afraid of new technologies, including artificial intelligence.
“By supporting them in developing critical thinking, we can also help them cope better,” Salum suggests. “You don’t have to be afraid of the new, but a technology-savvy young person can use its best opportunities, create new solutions themselves, and, if necessary, critically evaluate everything happening around them,” she says.
According to Salum, ProgeTiger has provided a good base for dealing with AI, and the program will also come in handy for teachers in relating to artificial intelligence, enabling them to guide students to take advantage of the opportunities that AI provides, as well as to assess the risks associated with it.