Will introducing computer science education in schools help close the widening STEM skills gap?
In the past, computer science was offered in schools as an elective course or at the very least an extracurricular activity. But since the end of last year, some 20,000 teachers across the United States have incorporated basic computer programming into their core curricula through a program called Hour of Code. Considering the importance of both computing and mobile technology in our daily lives, it seems like the obvious strategy: instill an interest in technology by bringing it into the classroom.
In practice, however, these measures may not prove to be enough.
By the end of the decade, it’s estimated that around 750,000 new tech positions will be available on the job market. While the American tech industry continues to grow and thrive, the number of initiatives in schools to meet the demand remains unequivocally stagnant.
Approximately only one in 10 K-12 schools offer some sort of computer science program, adding to an already problematic gap in STEM-related skills throughout the country. Moreover, only 17 percent of high school students today show an interest in pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-related fields.
That’s not to say students aren’t learning to code at a young age. In fact, many tech outfits have recently launched education programs in the United States.
India’s Tata group runs the goIT program, which operates free summer camps in emerging tech markets in Ohio and Michigan. goIT’s growing workshops aim to ignite interest in both STEM-related fields and coding, and as of last year, their camps have welcomed more than 2,000 students in Ohio alone.
The aforementioned Hour of Code is the brainchild of Code.org, a Seattle-based nonprofit aiming to grow computer science education for K-12 and lobbying to include the discipline within the core curriculum across all 50 states by providing free, robust coding resources for schools.
Code.org counts Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg among its benefactors, as well as sports and music celebrities who’ve taken the Hour of Code. Beyond their aspirations to normalize coding in classrooms nationwide, as well as to increase the number of women and minorities working in tech, Code.org also works to build and demonstrate successful methods of using both offline and online computer education in public school classrooms.
A number of free and subscription-based educational tools from private sector tech companies have made their mark on advancing computer science education in online classrooms. Using the same tools a future app builder would learn use to build and control, these programs offer wholly net-native courses taught through interactive web applications.
The current behemoth is Codecademy, an online campus with rigorous courses teaching the most important languages used on the Web and in mobile, include Java, PHP and Ruby, among others. Thanks to a strong investor pool, Codecademy is free and easy to register for, and boasts nearly 24 million users worldwide.
Among subscription learning tools, Treehouse has emerged as a front-runner via its novel approach to learning, which is packed with a strong social presence (i.e., student profiles, games, badges, etc.) and a pervasive YouTube ad campaign. Treehouse offers a learn-at-your-own pace model for Web and app coding, using video and virtual tutorials that bear resemblance to the wildly successful and comprehensive Lynda.com platform.
For the high school or college grad interested in a real-life campus environment with a focus on professional development, Galvanize offers the gSchool, with physical campuses in Denver and San Francisco. Just like traditional higher education, the knowledge comes with a heavy price tag. However, this immersive and intense program turns a determined student from a novice to a proficient coder — fully certified and with a tech-job placement guarantee — in just 24 weeks. Considering the thirst for quality engineers across so much of the private and creative sector, it’s no surprise the gSchool’s placement rate for graduates is near perfect.
These programs are promising, and can help teachers incorporate tech in their classroom, ignite ideas about how to teach the subject and provide enriching extracurricular options to help close the STEM gap. But will it be enough to meet the demand for quality programmers? If schools nationwide added such programs to curricula in an effort to stimulate interest in technology, many students would benefit from learning the fundamentals of coding. Yet coding and programming are not always the same thing.
Programming creates the logic and the expression of how software functions. Coding simply translates that logic into the proper code, whether that’s Ruby on Rails, Java or one of the myriad other languages. Good programming, much like the concept of design thinking, relies on the ability to solve problems and think creatively about both form and function within technology.
These programs will certainly get the conversation started on how to integrate computer science into classrooms, but knowledge of coding needs to be coupled with other reasoning skills — and creativity — to nurture the truly innovative programmers the future needs.