The words "computer programming" and “coding” may bring to mind an image of young men with wild hair and thick glasses glued to a bright computer screen, furiously typing in a strange language. But that image is quickly becoming an antiquated stereotype, and that strange language is quickly becoming the cornerstone of careers across the country.
Jobs in computer science are appearing at a rate twice the national average, and experts project that there will be more than 1 million unfilled jobs in computer science by 2020. Knowledge of coding can give your child more options when it comes time to decide on a career.
Code.org is a nonprofit organization focused on increasing the quality and quantity of computer programming education, in and out of the traditional classroom. It’s endorsed by an impressive lineup of politicians, businesspeople and celebrities, and backed by a who’s who list of high-tech moguls, including Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, Max Levchin, the cofounder of PayPal, and Drew Houston, the CEO of Dropbox.
The organization’s “vision” is that computer science and computer programming find their way into the core curriculum across the country, so that every student in every school is required to learn coding before setting foot on a college campus.
This would be no small change in education. Doubters may want to know what a school that embraces this vision would be like before jumping on the bandwagon. Is there a school that does this already? Why, yes, there is!
Beaver Country Day School
For most students, college is too late to take up computer programming, says Peter Hutton, the head of school at Beaver Country Day School in Brookline, Massachusetts. “Conventional education continues to embrace the myth that only certain kinds of kids can learn programming,” he says. “By doing this, schools eliminate an important opportunity for the vast majority of their students.”
His school, which serves grades 6 through 12, requires a computer programming course for graduation, but coding principles are taught throughout math classes at all grades, says the school’s math department chair, Rob MacDonald. “Our students are learning the habits of mind that are central to coding even when they're not explicitly coding,” he says. “We're confident that the coding skills they learn will apply to a wide range of other courses and disciplines."
This application of a school subject isn’t uncommon. For years, schools have taught math concepts that many students don’t necessarily need in the real world. Even though we have calculators, for example, students across the country have to learn their multiplication tables and how to do long division. For forward-thinking schools like Beaver, coding serves a similar purpose.
The “Techie” Stereotype
Without the benefit of programming classes in high school, only “self-selected” students who pursue programming outside of school are ready, Hutton says. These eager, self-driven “techies” may have filled every computer science job back in the 1990s, but the field no longer makes up a remote subset of society. Only an institution as large as our educational system is big enough to possibly fill the rapidly growing demand of jobs.
“In conventional education, the strategy is to identify engineers at a young age and weed everyone else out, and then we wonder why there are not more engineers,” Hutton says. His goal is to graduate more students who are interested in and able to pursue computer programming in college and beyond.
Women in Computer Programming
“Programming is seen as something boys do,” Hutton says. While women have made headway in computer technology fields, they aren’t doing so fast enough, in Hutton’s eyes. In 2010, only 18 percent of computer- and information-technology degrees went to women, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. And in 2012, just 23 percent of computer programmers were women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Beaver’s focus on programming and coding doesn’t just work on breaking the techie stereotype, but also a gender split.
What You Can Do
If you’re convinced that your child could benefit from early exposure to computer programming skills, here are a few ways to take action:
- Check and see what options your child's school has for computer courses. While many schools require no computer classes, there may be elective courses available.
- Seek an extracurricular class. Code.org has put together a database of courses, online and in-person, that kids can take to learn coding.
- Download programs, apps and games that teach programming skills. This is something you can do with your child. You can design basic computer games together or create your own website, or even a simple family blog.
- Talk to the school. It can’t hurt to ask your child’s school to catch up with the times and offer elective computer courses. Starting a petition and speaking at a PTA meeting are both great ways to have your voice heard.
If recent history is any indication, computer technology isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s only getting bigger. And exposing a child to advanced computer skills isn’t only an opportunity for future success, but also a chance to bond over a new interest.