Meet The Makers 3 – Joshua Lowe

Hello and welcome back to another MakeFest Monday! I am so tempted to sing that to the tune of “Manic Monday” by The Bangles but luckily for you I’ll resist. It’s time for the 3rd instalment of our Meet The Makers series and today we’re catching up with a young man I first interviewed back in 2015 when he was only 11.

A photo of Joshua Lowe stood in front of the PyCon 1028 sign in Cleaveland, Ohio
Joshua Lowe at PyCon 2018 in the USA!

Joshua Lowe has taken a curiosity in computing and turned it into an internationally used piece of software for teaching kids how to program. He talks regularly at conferences and works on many projects while still keeping up with school work and generally making us all feel very jealous. I got the chance to speak to him about how things have developed since our chance meeting at the original Liverpool MakeFest. I hope you enjoy listening to and/or reading this interview as much as I enjoyed making it.

Don’t forget you can listen to the FULL AUDIO VERSION on our companion podcast Radio MakeFest. Head over there to grab a copy of the audio and subscribe to get updates.

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DAN: Today’s guest is Joshua Lowe, all the way from sunny Preston. A young man I first met back in 2015 at Liverpool MakeFest. You’re probably most closely associated these days with your project EduBlocks but you do loads of stuff, so can you give us a background to what you do and what EduBlocks is?

JOSH: Sure, EduBlocks wasn’t even started when we did our interview 3 years ago. I started out with coding about 3 months before the first Liverpool MakeFest. So I was quite new to the coding scene, getting know everyone in the Raspberry Pi community and so on. It’s developed a lot since then, we’ve seen products like the Micro:Bit and there’s been a huge push on computer science in schools. It’s now being introduced from a really young age at primary school level. The government kind of threw this at teachers. They didn’t give them the training that they needed, or the funding to teach a subject that’s quite new and unusual to see in schools. So the Raspberry Pi community has said “you’ve put all this on teachers but they’ve no idea how to actually teach it”, this was kind of the start of EduBlocks for me.

I was in primary school at the time, I saw teachers struggling with computer science so I thought “why can’t I create something that will help them”? In Primary school you start off with a programming language called Scratch, which is drag and drop visual stuff to move a cat across a screen. Fun things you can do with coding. Then you move onto a thing called Python. Now Python is introduced at year 9 and it’s quite old to be introducing text based programming languages. It’s a step up from Scratch. You’re typing it, you’ve got the syntax to get your head around. It’s quite a scary thing to do. I started learning Python I think it was about 2 years into starting out with coding. Although it was scary I knew a bit about other languages, I’d tried a bit of JavaScript and had a go on the Arduino, so I knew a few familiar structures like that but Python was quite different. It can be a hard syntax for kids to get into. There’s all the grammar mistakes you can make going from Scratch to Python. So I created EduBlocks to make that easier. It’s kind of the missing gap between the 2 languages.

It’s like Scratch in that you’ve got your drag and drop interface but you’re actually coding in text based languages like Python. It currently runs on the Raspberry Pi and the Micro:Bit, so the two major platforms, and it’s now being used in schools around the world. A lot of teachers are really liking using the program and I’ve had feedback saying it’s helping kids not to be scared of Python, they’re ready to go onto typing it out after they’ve had a go with this. So it’s really having a positive impact on computer science learning in classrooms across the world.

DAN: That’s brilliant, has it surprised you how much it’s taken off?

JOSH: Yeah! It started off as a Saturday project at Blackpool Raspberry Jam and I thought “if it can turn on an LED then that’ll be something” but then people started asking “why can’t it do Minecraft?” so I added Minecraft in and it grew from there.

It’s gone to 72 countries now across the world and 9000 active users per month. It gone from 2 users to all these people all over the world and it’s gone further than I ever could have imagined when I started. It’s having an impact on people yeah.

A screen shot of the edublocks interface, large coloured blocks linking commands
The EduBlocks user interface. Find it at edublocks.org

DAN: Was that a challenge going into other countries, I’m guessing you get questions in other languages and so on?

JOSH: A lot of emails come through in other languages but with the power of Google translate you kind of can’t go wrong now. It was definitely a challenge though. This is all through Twitter as well, I’ve never done any advertising so it’s hard to imagine what might happen with some marketing. It’s all through the community and it’s great to see people support it.

DAN: It sounds like that’s important to you, that it remain community driven and it’s not controlled by some corporation.

JOSH: Lots of people chip in ideas, whether that be a suggestion for something to add or submitting code via GitHub. It’s really community driven, it’s not just me doing all the work. There’s lots of different ways to get involved.

I’ve always said from the start that I want it to be free to use and I don’t want people to have to pay to download. Resources like money can be scarce in schools and I want everyone to be able access it so it’s going to remain free. It’s community driven and everyone contributes because they see the potential the program has. That’s really nice to see.

DAN: Yeah, and you’ve been invited to speak at conferences about this in front of fairly big crowds, was that scary at first?

JOSH: Yeah so next week – I think Les mentioned it – we’re going to Cleaveland in the United States for PyCon 2018. There’s an education summit with 200 teachers attending as part of that and I’ve been invited to keynote at the event. We hope to push EduBlocks in the US and get it into areas where it’s not been before. Conferences really help with that because it gives me a challenge of speaking to people in crowds which was scary at first but I’m kind of used to it now.

DAN: I have to ask the really boring adult question but does your school mind you taking time off to do all this sort of stuff?

JOSH: I’m lucky that I got to a school that really supports students doing work outside of school. They give me time off to go to conferences because they don’t see it as a jolly, getting out of school because you want to. They see it as an opportunity to meet people who can help me in the future. So they’re really good about it.

Next week is exams week so they’ve been really good to let me go and do this. It’s nice to know that as well as people in the community supporting me I have the school behind me too.

DAN: So we met at Liverpool MakeFest in 2015, what are your memories of that event?

JOSH: It was the first big event of that scale that I’d been to. Les just said there was a Maker event going on in Liverpool and said I should come along to meet some people who could help me. So I went along and through that it helped build up my confidence in speaking to new people. It was amazing to see how big the community was and realise it existed beyond Twitter.

DAN: So obviously there’s another MakeFest coming up on June 30th this year, you’re going to be with us again so what will you be doing?

JOSH: The plan is to have a number of workstations set up where people can try various things. I’ve also designed a new add-on board for the Raspberry Pi to go along with EduBlocks, so that’ll make it’s debut there. We’re starting to see electronics coming into schools now with wiring up breadboards and so on, I want this board to help with that. I’ll be showing off what you can do with it. Next to us is going to be the Micro:Bit stand where Rachael and Les will be wiring up Neopixels with Micro:Bits and showing off what you can do. That’s the key aspect of these events is showing what you can do and getting people interested who haven’t heard of the Maker community before. MakeFest is good for that because it’s in a library, an open space where people can wander through.

DAN: Yeah that definitely helps I think. So you’re gonna be in the Discovery space with Les which is the big dome shaped room on the right as you go in. If people want to find out more about EduBlocks in the meantime how can they do that?

JOSH: Head to the website at EduBlocks.org or find me on Twitter, I’m always on there. The handle is @all_about_code or of course come along to MakeFest and see these things in person. Say hello and I can tell you all about it.

DAN: Brilliant, thanks Josh, we’ll see you there on June 30th!

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A big thanks to Josh for giving up some of his weekend to talk to me about all this. It was recorded at the start of May so he’s actually been to America last week by the time you read this. It’s great to hear from a young Maker with a massive future and a passion for sharing knowledge and helping the community. I’m sure you’ll see much more of him in the years to come.

Don’t forget you can listen to the FULL AUDIO VERSION on our companion podcast Radio MakeFest. Head over there to grab a copy of the audio and subscribe to get updates.

Find out more about EduBlocks via his website or as he said come along on June 30th 2018 and see for yourself.

Grab your free tickets via Eventbrite!

Also, if you’re community minded, we need help setting up and packing away on the weekend. You could be a superhero and volunteer. Just fill out this quick web form.

See you next time where we’ll meet another inspirational member of the Maker community.

Dan

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