Most people today would say they are proficient in using a computer, but only a sliver of that group might be able to describe how a computer and its software work.
While technology and computers have never been as omnipresent as they are at this moment, there is a need for more computer programmers. The shortage is likely to worsen, since far fewer students are studying computer science than are going to be needed in the future.
Hadi Partovi, co-founder of Code.org, a non-profit that promotes the study of computer science, estimates by 2020 there will be about 1.4 million programming jobs available and only about 400,000 college graduates with a major in that field.
What is even more discouraging is that 27 of the 50 states – including New Jersey – don’t recognize computer science as a math or science high school graduation requirement, and 90 percent of high schools don’t offer any computer programming courses. Recent polls show at the college level, less than 2.4 percent of college students graduate with a degree in computer science – and those numbers have dropped since a decade ago.
Students who have had early exposure to computer science are more likely to consider studying the subject in college and prepare for a career in the field.
And the fact is that studying computer science does not just prepare students for thriving careers. Students learn foundational knowledge that helps develop critical thinking and computational skills such as algorithmic problem-solving and data analysis. Such skills can be used in a variety of fields of study and types of careers. An understanding of the core principles of computing is as important, as, say, an understanding of the core principles of physics or biology.
Some of the main obstacles to getting students to undertake coding are misconceptions that people hold about the process.
The first and foremost is the mindset “this is too hard.”
The first time someone watches the process of coding it can look like sorcery. The language of characters and incomplete sentences that translates into a social media page or a game can be intimidating. But students need to understand that the only barrier between them and designing something cool is not understanding the necessary language.
Anything will seem scary and intimidating at first, and no one is perfect at anything the first time. But even 10-year-olds are capable of coding. Bill Gates didn’t touch a computer until he was 13 years old, and started off with the concept of tic-tac-toe.
There are a few organizations that are actively working to broaden the availability of computer science courses students from elementary school age- through college age.
StudentRND is one such group. It’s a non-profit that runs programs which educates students in middle school through college about programming and engineering. The organization runs Code Day, a worldwide network of 24-hour programming marathons. Basically, would-be coders arrive at noon on Saturday at designated locations, pitch ideas, form teams and write code in order to finish by noon on Sunday. The last Code Day was May 24-25, 2014; there were Code Day events in 22 cities across the nation, including in New York and Philadelphia. StudentRND also runs a month-long summer program to help students refine their programming skills. More information is available here.
Code.org is another non-profit group; it has developed a classroom computer science curriculum for K-8 students, trains prospective computer science teachers, and runs the Hour of Code, encouraging people to write computer code for one hour. Some 39 million people have tried the Hour of Code; the group is aiming to reach 100 million for the 2014 Computer Science Education Week, which is Dec. 8-14.
One New Jersey teacher, Jennifer Latimer, the Clinton Elementary School media specialist in the South Orange- Maplewood district, introduced 600 students to coding during an “Hour of Code” last year. She has also taught weekly sessions during library time, an after-school enrichment class for students in grades three to five, and a four-week course at the local library using the Code.org course. This fall she will teach coding lessons to parents.
The movement to encourage the study of computer science is gaining support and strength. So where do we go from here?
School district leaders need to understand that computer science is a skill that should be taught at all levels. Boards of education can also encourage students to take part in events like CodeDay, and to be part of math, science and robotics clubs.
Students and school leaders alike shouldn’t fear the world of programming, but instead, embrace it and demand access to it. Studying computer science will better prepare all students for tomorrow.