Digital twins of school playgrounds will teach kids to code for a sustainable future

Networks that sense the natural environment will equip more kids with the technology skills to fight climate change

The problem with teaching code in schools is it’s always the same kids who enjoy it. “If you try to get kids to write code, the kids that code will be the kids that code,” says Wo King, CEO of Penzance-based AI company Hi9.

The result is a persistent lack of diversity in the software industry – today, only 11% of developers are women. But King believes society is missing another huge opportunity, too. Traditional coding lessons simply don’t resonate with the kids who care the most about the planet’s future.

The sight of an Extinction Rebellion protest outside Cornwall Council’s offices gave him an idea: a way to teach tech skills to a more diverse range of schoolkids, and at the same time equip them to fight climate change rather than protest about it.

That idea is about to take form in an initiative called Project Celia, which will bring some of the latest thinking in machine learning, edge computing and sensor-based networks into Cornwall’s schools and classrooms.

Digital twins will allow schoolkids to connect with the environment

Project Celia will see schools build digital twins of their surrounding environment, linking sensors around the school grounds to an IoT gateway on the roof via a low-powered Wide Area Network (LPWAN).

With no 5G network in Cornwall to carry the sensor data to the cloud for processing, it will make use of so-called machine learning at the edge: using local processing power to turn masses of data into useful information about the school’s natural environment.

King uses the example of a school pond. “If you’ve got a sensor in the pond, and you see that when the water goes below a certain level the frogs don’t come back, the code you write can save a frog.”

“If you’ve got a sensor in the pond, and you see that when the water goes below a certain level the frogs don’t come back, the code you write can save a frog.”

wo king, ceo, hi9

In other words, kids will no longer be writing code for code’s sake, but as a means to understand, protect – and even talk to – the environment. King believes this will open up technology to a more diverse group – not just bringing more girls into the mix, but also kids who more naturally lean towards arts subjects.

“You can use it for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths,” he says, “but you can also bring in the English and Drama kids to design a chatbot that can talk to the environment and find out how it’s feeling.” Rather than protesting about climate change, kids will have the tools to start solving it.

While Project Celia will start as a means of teaching tech in schools, King also sees wider benefits for the Cornish economy and the region’s sustainable development.

“They can take the skills they learn and apply them right here – in agritech, in marine, in the environment. Rather than training them to go off and work at Google, you’re creating the technicians and engineers of Cornwall’s future.”