Building the Workforce of the Future by Teaching Kids to Code
Young app developers at the 2013 App Jam at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Science Center. / photo: Ben Filio
Is programming the new literacy? Should we be doing more to promote computer science education, both in and out of school?
“Here we are, 2013,” singer-songwriter will.i.am said recently. “We all depend on technology to communicate, to bank, and none of us know how to read and write code.”
will.i.am, of Black Eyed Peas fame, is one of a group of stars and technology giants arguing for more computer programming education in US schools.
The new effort, Code.org, made a splash when it debuted last month. It’s being championed by everyone from Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg, to Sheryl Sandberg and Bill Clinton, who argue that computer science education is a vital piece of preparing educated citizens of the 21st century and of meeting the demand for jobs in the new economy.
“In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, “ writes author Douglas Rushkoff, “you will either create the software or you will be the software. It’s really that simple: Program, or be programmed.”
In game developer Marc Prensky’s seminal piece “Programming Is the New Literacy,” he argues that as we progress through the new century, the future will look like “a real revenge of the nerds, except that the new nerds will be our programmatically literate children.” He continues:
Here’s a key question: Will the need for a separate scribe tribe of programmers continue through the twenty-first century, or will the skill set of an educated person soon include programming fluency? I think that as programming becomes increasingly easy (which it will) and as the need to show rather than explain becomes important (which it will) and as people working together want to combine the results of their efforts and ideas instantaneously (which they will), educated people will, out of necessity, become programmers. Think of it: Your phone and car already require programming skills; many houses and jobs do, too. Programming will soon be how we interact with all our objects, and I believe it will be an important component of how we interact with one another as well.
Not everyone agrees. Digital media contrarian Evgeny Morozov, author of “To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism,” thinks it’s absurd that we should need to know how to code. As he told Ian Tucker of the Guardian:
There are good reasons why we don’t want everyone to learn nuclear physics, medicine or how financial markets work. Our entire modern project has been about delegating power over us to skilled people who want to do the work and be rewarded accordingly. I’m all for making us aware of how various technological infrastructures work. But the idea everyone should learn how to code is as plausible as saying that everyone should learn how to plumb. To me it just makes no sense.
But advocates counter that if we don’t make more of a concerted effort to teach programming, there won’t be enough of these “new nerds” and many of our children will be left behind.
The New York Times reports that there will likely be 150,000 computing jobs opening up each year through 2020, according to the Association for Computing Machinery, a professional society for computing researchers. However, fewer than 40,000 American students received bachelor’s degrees in computer science during 2010.
The Obama administration has plans to train new science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers and in the most recent State of the Union called for retraining 2 million out-of-work Americans with skills they need for high-tech jobs.
“I also hear from many business leaders who want to hire in the United States but can’t find workers with the right skills,” Obama said. “Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job. Think about that–openings at a time when millions of Americans are looking for work. That’s inexcusable. And we know how to fix it.” Learning to code could be a first step in sparking an interest in those high-tech fields.
Code.org cites statistics showing that although computer science is among the highest paid college degrees, and computer science jobs are growing at twice the national average, 9 out of 10 schools don’t even offer computer programming classes. Maybe programming should be the new “voc tech.”
As a new Hive Learning Network we’ll be one of the groups trying to change that with programs in schools, museums, libraries, afterschool programs, and on the web designed to spark a passion for learning, beginning with kids’ interests and guided by mentors and digital technologies.
We’ll be partnering with folks at the Mozilla Foundation, who have created some powerful authoring tools and software like Popcorn, Thimble, and Hackasaurus designed to build web literacy skills, teach coding, and foster an understanding of how the building blocks of the web work. For example, Hackasaurus introduces kids to basic html tags—the most basic components of website programming—and encourages kids to mash up and change any web page like magic.
“Our message is that the web is Lego, something we can all shape around us,” Mozilla Foundation executive director Mark Surman said in a 2011 article about Hackasaurus. “With a very tiny amount of programming skills, you can change it.”
Prensky’s piece notes that kids are learning programming skills on their own time because they see it as a powerful way to express themselves and because it’s fun. A “connected learning” model, which the Hive Network uses, aims to better integrate what kids are learning in school, at home, and in community spaces.
One unique model we’re particularly proud of here in Pittsburgh is called the Mobile App Lab, an afterschool program in which high school students from around the region learn programming skills and work with local engineers to design apps for real-world clients. The program began at a local private school, Winchester Thurston, as an effort to build leadership opportunities for computer science students and has since expanded to include four additional public high schools: Pittsburgh Obama, South Fayette High School, Quaker Valley High School, and Mars Area High School.
This year the program kicked off with a tour of Google’s Pittsburgh headquarters where students got to meet and ask questions of Google engineers. During the 7-week course, students learned the programming language Processing and built mobile apps on the Android platform. As the culminating event, students got to participate in the App Jam on March 13th where they worked in teams to develop apps that would enhance visitor experiences in exhibits at the Carnegie Science Center, a local science museum. Students presented prototypes to a panel of experts.
In addition to building computer science skills, the project also aims to build the capacity of local high schools to incorporate computer science education into their regular curriculum through mentoring, toolkits, curriculum resources, and professional development. They place a big emphasis on mentoring and hope to build a peer network of local high school students interested in programming who can work as student leaders in their home schools to teach others and advocate for computer science literacy.
If all goes well, soon their communities will be crawling with these new nerds, primed for the jobs of the future and ready to teach the rest of us how the world works.