The push to make computer science a core subject in K-12 schools is on of the hottest, most popular educational reform issues of our time. England has already done it, and other countries have plans to follow suit. Here in the U.S., everyone from politicians to parents is talking about it. In a recent poll commissioned by Google, two-thirds of parents said that computer science should be required learning in schools. And those parents are right. Here’s why…
- Programming is rapidly becoming a foundational skill that has value across disciplines. It is no surprise that scientists have come to rely on programming, but programming isn’t just for scientists! When you consider that computer programs are now used to analyze great works of art and literature to identify patterns, cross-connections and authenticity, one thing becomes clear: in nearly every field, those who understand how to program computers have a profound advantage over those who don’t.
- Computer science is a powerful way to teach kids problem solving and critical thinking skills. Math, science, and computer science are the three pillars of modern problem solving in the 21st century. In math, we learn how to describe our world with numbers. In science, we learn how to build testable theories with predictive power. In computer science, we learn how to turn our mathematical models and scientific theories into executable simulations. Through programming, students learn how to describe the solution to a single problem as a precise, repeatable process that can scale to solve millions of similar problems.
- Careers in computer science are abundant and lucrative. All kids deserve to have some exposure to CS so they can discover whether it is something they might want to do professionally. Computer science is far more than “just a trade skill,” but to the extent that programming is a trade skill, it is a particularly important one to our economy. In the U.S. programming jobs are growing at twice the national average, and our ability to fill those jobs affects our global competitiveness. Our nation requires a strong CS “pipeline” that readies kids for information technology positions in order to compete economically with other countries.
Even though most parents agree that computer science should be a required subject, only one out of every four schools even offers it. One of the most common reasons cited by principals and superintendents for not offering CS is that there simply isn’t enough time in the day – the teaching focus needs to be on core subjects which are measured by standardized tests.
Setting the record straight
This kind of thinking is based on the misconception that teaching CS is an either-or proposition. Part of what makes CS so valuable is that it synergizes with other subjects. CS instruction doesn’t necessarily need to be taught as a separate topic, especially at the early grade levels, where it can easily be integrated into other subjects, such as math and science, in a way that makes those subjects feel even more practical and relevant.
Cracking the code – the correct answer is “hybrid”
The Bootstrap curriculum for middle school students is a shining example of what CS education should look like at the middle school level. Bootstrap is aligned with Common Core standards for algebra, so it can be used as a drop-in replacement for existing math courses. It harnesses students’ excitement around gaming, teaching kids to directly apply algebra to program video games of their own creation. In other words, replace your math class with a math/CS hybrid class and you get a better math experience, plus you learn programming. It’s a win-win.
Budget, budget – who’s got the budget?
There is simply no budget (especially in primary schools) for the necessary computer equipment to teach programming. Here’s the magic. You don’t need to be sitting in front of a high-powered, expensive computer to learn computer science. I’m a big believer that some of the strongest ways to learn computational thinking are away from the computer, through non-electronic logic puzzles, activities, and games. One superb example of this is the CS Unplugged curriculum, which I have used with great success.
Look Ma’ – No Screen!
Using offline puzzles and logic games to teach CS is something I’m personally passionate about, which is why I’ve partnered with ThinkFun to bring a programming puzzle game, Code Master, to market. Code Master is, in essence, a board game with a coding twist, where kids build and test their programs by hand, without the aid of a computer. In many ways, this is an advantage. Kids can’t just hit a “run” button and watch their programs play out – they must thoroughly understand the rules of program execution in order to run their programs themselves. The result is a low-tech, low-budget activity that delivers a meaningful educational experience as early as grade school.
In the U.S., education decisions are mostly made at the local level. Progress is happening, slowly, in scattered communities. For example, New York City recently set a deadline for all its schools to offer computer science within 10 years. If we want to see computer science offered in our schools, parents will need to communicate directly with their school boards and actively advocate for change in the classroom.
And, while it may realistically take some time to integrate coding curriculum into the classroom, there’s no reason parents can’t tap into the plethora of consumer-available tools, toys, games and resources to help our children become code literate now. In today’s digital world, when we teach our kids critical thinking and logic skills through computer science, we are programming them for success.
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Mark Engelberg is the inventor of ThinkFun’s Code Master. Follow Mark on Twitter, @hinkfun