05/16/2016 12:59 EDT | Updated 05/17/2017 05:12 EDT

Inspiration + Curriculum = Canada's Answer To Innovation


As Canada strives to build an economy defined by innovation, our greatest resource to meet this challenge is walking through the classroom doors of our nation every morning wearing oversized Pokémon and Hello Kitty backpacks. It's never been more critical that we give our children the tools they need to become Canada's innovators of tomorrow.

Canada has entered a new economic epoch defined by the internet, rapid digital advancements and globalization. And this new era already has something of a slogan: Every company is now a technology company. From farming to CGI in the movies, no industry is exempt from the critical role technology plays in fostering innovation and growth. And fueling that technology is, of course, the binary code of computer science.

I had an interesting conversation with one of our engineers not that long ago. I asked him when he knew he was going to pursue a career in computer science. He talked about the time he turned a Radio Shack circuit snap-kit into a rudimentary metal detector. He also mentioned a Grade 7 physics class on electromagnetic fields. But looking back, there wasn't one moment that led him to pursue engineering and computer science as a career. Instead, it was dozens of small moments which gradually illuminated the vast potential of sciences and math.

Ninety-eight per cent of Google engineers had some level of exposure to computer science and technology before entering university. Many also say it wasn't a single "aha" moment that inspired them to pursue their career path, but rather dozens of small moments that gradually illuminated the vast potential of sciences and math. Canadian children need more of these opportunities -- particularly girls, Indigenous students and other communities that are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

That's why University of Toronto Engineering and Google Canada partnered with Actua, a national STEM outreach organization, to bring together more than 1,400 elementary school students and their teachers last Friday to find moments of inspiration in math, engineering and computer science. This full day of workshops gave kids hands-on exposure to robotics, the science of roller-coasters, 3D printing and, importantly, the basics of computer coding. Of course our hope was to create a spark and to ignite their curiosity and passion in a teachable moment or two.

But these kinds of moments are only as good as our capacity to carry that momentum of inspiration into the classroom. We are making progress. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently spoke about the need for kids to understand the importance of coding. In England computer science is already on the curriculum for primary and secondary school pupils. And it's encouraging to see that British Columbia and Nova Scotia are working to integrate computer coding into curricula starting in Kindergarten right through to grade 12.

Building a thriving innovation economy will not happen overnight. Creating more moments where young people can discover their potential to make, collaborate and invent is a crucial first step. But we also need provincial ministries of education to offer STEM and computer science curriculum for students of all ages, to help nurture lifelong passions and, ultimately, careers.

If we're serious about innovation in Canada, we need to recognize that computer science is not simply the language of ones and zeroes. It's the language of creativity, entrepreneurship and Canada's future potential.