This Google employee helped change the rules so Australian kids will learn code at school -- here's how she sees the world

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Sally-Ann Williams. Photo: Supplied.

Sally-Ann Williams grew up in a small town in Queensland. She attended a state school and her parents owned a small fruit and vegetable shop. To this day her parents don’t have a computer or the internet.

Williams is on Google Australia’s engineering team.

She is one of the people responsible for a monumental change in Australia’s schooling curriculum which will see children learn computer science (CS) and STEM education, and teachers equipped to teach it. Williams was involved in developing the Digital Technologies Curriculum taught in Australian schools, K-12, and secured a partnership with the University of Adelaide to develop a free open online course to help primary school teachers bring computer science and computational thinking into their classrooms.

Business Insider Australia sat down with Williams to discuss some of the projects she has been working on, and why she thinks educating children in CS and STEM is the future.

The following transcript has been slightly edited for clarity and length.

Sarah Kimmorley: So, you’re the Engineering Community & Outreach manager for Google Australia. Explain a bit about that, and what your role entails?

Sally-Ann Williams: So, I’m on the Engineering Team at Google. I’m coming up to 10 years now and so it’s been a little while and been a pretty exciting place to be part of something that’s growing so phenomenally.

I work across kind of three things, which I think are really exciting because they’re all about innovation in the future. I look after our Computer Science and then Education Outreach programs in the K-12 space, I work with universities on research collaboration in computer science-related areas, and then I look after the tech start-up and entrepreneurship ecosystem and help growing that ecosystem, which is pretty cool.

For me, the things that get me excited I think the most is the fact that we have this really phenomenal opportunity right now in Australia, or this change that’s happening in Australia as we shift from being, you know a resources or a commodities-led economy to a knowledge-based economy, and sort of you know if we’re transitioning that we’re having this generational change where we get to introduce the Digital Technologies Curriculum to students for the very first time. We get to start getting kids in from Kindergarten all the way through engaged in computational thinking and coding, and that is an absolute game-changer from a computer science perspective… that’s a very long-term play and a long-term view, but that gets me super-excited.

Photo: Andrew Burton/ Getty Images.

I think the other thing that gets me super-excited is that this is an opportunity that is for everybody. You know it’s not just for one particular part of the country or particular region; it is something that anybody can engage in. So, if you live in a small rural community and your focusing on agriculture you know the best things that are going to be happening in the future of farming agriculture is combining it with computer science and technology, and that’s where innovation and change and future businesses are going to come from. So, no matter what your background is or no matter where you come from there’s an opportunity to engage from an educational perspective and to take that from the Kindergarten and the school years all the way through into creating the jobs of the future and businesses of the future. I think we’re setting up the country right to be a nation that can do that really well. That’s what gets me out of bed every morning pretty much.

SK: Let’s talk about each of those different areas individually because there is a lot involved. Can you provide some explains of the programs that you’re working on and what they have achieved in the last 12 months?

SAW: Yeah, absolutely, I’ll start with the computer science agenda, the schools’ agenda, the K-12 space.

It was only September last year that the National Curriculum was approved for digital technology and we have already partnerships with over 60 organisations, so universities, schools and Not-for-Profits in this space. But with just one of those partnerships — in less than 18 months — we’ve actually seen 5,500 teachers have over 51,000 hours of Professional Development and Professional Learning in the digital technologies curriculum. That’s huge. It gets really exciting because we’re doing this for teachers. The platform that we built with our partner, in this instance, the University of Adelaide, to deliver this online training, it’s completely free, it’s completely scalable, anyone anywhere in Australia, and actually globally, can access it. It not only teaches or equips the teachers with what they need to enable teaching this curriculum but it does two other things: it connects them with resources from all sorts of providers and all sorts of partners including the CSIRO’s resources and things like that, which means that they can hit the ground running. The second thing that it does, which I think is an absolute game-changer, and no-one else has really done when they’re thinking about curriculum implementation, is it connects these teachers to an online community of practice. So, peer-to-peer learning from teachers to be able to share resources and what’s working in their classroom and what’s been effectively engaging kids from as young as five years old all the way through. That’s an amazing platform and that’s an amazing program that we’ve been able to deliver that in pilot phase has had a huge impact, and now, as we scale up, is going to be a phenomenal resource as a foundation to really help us ensure that these kids, students everywhere, are really getting engaged and equipped with what they need.

Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/ AFP/ Getty Images.

It’s not been done before and it’s working really effectively and you know we’ve got great research coming out of the university that actually proves the effectiveness of the delivery mechanism and also what’s happening with those teachers and those classrooms. It’s really exciting.

And it’s not just about coding. The curriculum actually teaches computational thinking, which, if you think of it at its essence it’s how do you break down and solve problems. When we think about what we want kids to be learning in schools in every discipline we want them to be problem-solvers, we want them to understand how to look at a problem and understand the complexities, break it down to simple components and then piece back a solution to it. So, computational thinking is at the core of this curriculum, and also computer science elements. There is programming and there is coding in it, but actually the depth of knowledge and learning that we want these kids to have is those core problem-solving skills, and that’s a big part of it. There’s also a great design element to it and there’s also that conversation that we need to be having with students as well as about “What is the human impact?”

So, when we think about training kids in technology and how to be creative with technology, we also want them to understand that they’re learning this to solve real world problems. It’s not just something abstract that you do for fun, although you can, because you can do some really fun things with coding and computer science, but it’s actually about taking those skills and applying them to real world problems at the end of the day.

SK: How does this new curriculum compare with the educational standards of other countries?

SAW: It’s a really solid curriculum and it’s really exciting to see. One of the most important things when you think about computer science curriculum or STEM curriculum or any of the sort of technologies and maths and sciences curriculums is that we know that we need to introduce it early to engage the broadest possible student base in both learning the knowledge but also continuing on in the discipline. This starts in primary school and it is something that every student will be able to engage in. There’s other countries that have also implemented a national curriculum or have started to do that, and they all have elements of the same core sort of problem solving skills that we want them to have. It’s really strong and it’s really solid. If you talked to any of my counterparts or any of my friends in the US they would absolutely dream to have a curriculum in primary schools. So, we’re doing really well, the fact that we have one now.

SK: What have some of the challenges been in getting that up and running?

SAW: The biggest challenges I think are similar to any problem that you’re trying to solve in the world, is having enough hours in a day to do all of the work. We’ve been really fortunate in Australia I think that the curriculum is really broadly supported. I think most people see the need for it. They understand that this is about creating the next generation of innovators and creators in Australia, and not just computer scientists but it’s about people that are going to work in finance and agriculture and mining and commerce and business, and that they actually need these skills to bring into those things. It’s really broadly supported. I think with anything we just need time; we need a little bit more time to be able to allow some of the future modules to keep going and keep running and to give them the time that they need to get their confidence and skills up. But also we need time for other programs that work on parallel with this with schools like First Robotics programs, like coding programs and all of those things, they just need time to be able to disperse across the country.

SK: What’s the importance of these programs for the future of the Australian tech sector, and more broadly, the Australian the workforce?

SAW: I think the thing is that it’s really important is it’s for every sector, it’s not just the tech sector. Tech is exciting and it’s wonderful, but if I think about agriculture, if I think about medicine, if I think about finance and banking, all of those sectors are tech sectors as well now. What gets even more exciting about something like this is when you’re making a step-change nationally and you know you’re really starting to impact the entire education system to drive change in this. The potential of what that can lead to in 10, 15 and 20 years is that we can be world leaders in every single one of those sectors. One of the ways I like to describe this is “Computer science plus X” so, computer science plus finance, computer science plus agriculture, computer science plus medicine. It’s the intersection between those two disciplines where in research, in work, in absolutely every area, that you see innovation and you see change and you see new businesses come about. For me it’s beyond the conversation of “This is just about technology and the tech sector”. It’s actually: “This is about our farmers, this is about our banks, this is about our ecommerce.”

SK: What about the work you’re doing with research and universities? What collaborations are you working on at the moment?

SAW: I think the things that are exciting to talk about in this space are: our philosophy or how we approach research with universities, and if you go to google.com/research, you know we’re very public about what we do, and we like to collaborate in pretty much the same way we like to work with Google. Inside of Google it’s very open and it is about collaborating and producing outcomes that are actually impactful in disciplines and push them forward. We have our Research Award Program globally and our PhD Fellowship Program which we have available as well where we really are encouraging the best and brightest to push forward disciplines, in computer science-related disciplines. It’s not about commercialisation; it’s actually about pushing forward the science, or the science of computer science, and really helping drive innovation and change in the entire ecosystem.

Photo: Brendon Thorne/ Getty Images.

SK: You recently spoke at the Vivid Ideas Lunch, and one of the things that was talked about was how Australia faces challenges finding qualified graduates in the STEM sector, but also educators continue to fail because they restrict their thinking to disciplinary silos. Can you talk about that a bit more broadly and what needs to happen in order for this to change?

SAW: What’s interesting about that is that if you go and spend any time on any STEM taskforce right now in Australia, or if you talk to any business leader, everybody will talk about the fact that innovation happens at the intersection of disciplines and that you need multi-disciplinary teams to solve really complex problems. Now, with introducing technology – and this is a long answer but it’s a complex problem – but introducing the technology aspects, so introducing digital technologies and computer science in primary school, allows us from primary school to actually merge disciplines a little bit closer together and start talking about solving problems and what skills do you need to solve those problems. So, instead of saying, “I’m going to teach you maths,” or, “I’m going to teach you science,” we say, “The problem that we’re trying to solve today is how do we give people clean drinking water in the face of a natural disaster?” We think about what that problem is, we define it, and then we start to go: “Okay, what are the solutions to that and what disciplines, what knowledge do I need to bring together to actually solve a problem?” That’s the kind of conversation and the change that is starting to happen in the K-12 space.

Now, what’s really encouraging is we’ve seen that same conversation and that same narrative happening now with universities who are starting to think about multi-disciplinary degrees or combined degrees. We’re starting to talk about data science, so combining data analytics with marketing or with medicine or with law or with urban and built environments, and when you start talking about those disciplines coming together that you can move to solve real-world problems, that’s when you start to bring those learnings and those disciplines closer together.

I think though if we really want to make a difference in this space, if we really want to attract more students into these degrees, we have to have a conversation at the school level with parents, teachers and students to talk about real-world outcomes from university study, from degrees, from TAFE, and we need to point forward to what those careers look like and what those opportunities are. It’s not just a conversation of “Go do a law degree and become a lawyer”, or, “Go do an accounting degree and just become an accountant;” I think most people would understand that if you do a law degree or if you do an accounting degree you could end up in a range of different outcomes and opportunities. But for some reason when we come to the sciences and STEM degrees we’ve said, “Well, do medicine and become a doctor.” Actually what the [tertiary system] needs to do maybe is say: “Maybe do medicine and do computer science and what you might do is build a new smart contact lens that automatically detects from the saline in your eye your blood glucose levels and help alert you in real time to manage your diabetes.”

It’s about thinking about these things in a much more broader sense about what the outcomes can actually lead to from STEM backgrounds and STEM disciplines. And I think we’re actually really starting to see it. There are some phenomenal programs that engage young people particularly in the high school level in creative problem solving through a team-based environment.

I know universities are talking about this. I’m super excited about the fact that they are looking at ways to bring things closer together, and you’re seeing a whole bunch of different degrees and an emergence of opportunities to study these things coming out of Australian universities, and I think that’s going to be a big enabler of change too going forward…

It’s really unique thing that’s happening in Australia right now and we have an actual opportunity to kind of grow that momentum and to increase that so that every single student has the opportunity to engage in this space and have their life transformed by it because they see the potential that they can create in the future.

SK: Do you think it’s just as important to foster the education of the next generation as it is to make Australia more appealing country for people to come and work?

SAW: I feel like that kid on the Mexican taco’s ad. You know, “Why can’t we have both?” The reality is if you are building a nation that is doing really exciting innovative stuff you’re going to do two things: you’re going to inspire the generation that’s coming up through the ranks to get involved with that; and you’re going to inspire others to either come here and also to learn from us and to take it elsewhere as well.

We don’t talk about this a lot in Australia, but we have great heritage in doing really amazing inventive things and exporting them to the world. You know one of the things that is important for us to do is recognise those successes, celebrate those successes, not just the ones in the past but the ones that are up-and-coming, both to inspire our students now and future students, but also inspire others in other countries. It’s that kind of thing that “If she can do it I can do it.”

Google contact lens. Image: Google.

SK: Let’s move on to the tech start-up ecosystem, and what you’re doing there.

SAW: So we work collaboratively in the ecosystem, we support a lot of different initiatives; we’re partners with Fishburners, we’re inspiring the next generation of tech start ups to get involved in a really supportive and collaborative ecosystem. We have a lot of partners with organisation such as MAP, the Melbourne Accelerator Program, and really I think for us it’s about helping put a spotlight where we can on really exciting things that are happening the ecosystem and connecting them with the resources and the opportunities to build successful businesses.

For me, as a woman who grew up in a family that had a small business, a very small business, I’m really passionate about seeing more women come into that space, so I spend a lot of my time working with lots of different organisations helping mentor them on how to make that space accessible and open to everybody and welcoming to everybody because the tech start-up ecosystem should be for everybody. At the end of the day our outputs are all about people and making a difference in the lives of people and impacting their lives.

Personally I’m really excited about what’s happening in the regional areas. I actually grew up in a place called Mudgeeraba. It’s part of the broader Gold Coast, which the Gold Coast is not small now, but when I was growing up it was a pretty small, little town, and my mum and dad owned a fruit and vegie shop. Nobody in my family had ever finished school. My parents still don’t have the internet at home and don’t own a laptop. So they literally don’t even understand what I do.

I am solving for me really. I don’t talk about that very often but you know I’m a product of the State Education system. I’m an absolute believer that if you empower teachers and equip them with what they need in the classroom they can inspire students to do something that is outside the realm of what they’ve ever seen because that’s what’s happened to me. Nobody in my family had ever finished high school, nobody had ever even dreamed of going to university. I’ve not only been once, I’ve been several times now. So, if it wasn’t for what was honed into me through the education system, and my parents who taught me to work hard and said, “You can do anything you put your mind to,” and if I hadn’t been in a school system that encouraged that, there’s no way I would be doing what I do now today at Google.

I don’t talk about that a lot but that’s what drives me to get up and do what I do every day because you know I do something what I love and what I think is really cool now and I get to work for one of the best companies in the world. But what about the next Sally that comes along; what’s she going to do? How do we give her the opportunity to do more? And that’s exciting. And to me like that’s real change; that’s stuff that is going to be a life thing. It’s beyond a year, it’s beyond five years, it’s beyond 10 years; it’s stuff that will stand the test of time.

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