How Code.org is extending computer science beyond ‘the lucky few’

Computer programming has declined in American schools over the past decade, in spite of its developmental value — not to mention career benefits — for kids. Only 10 percent of American schools teach computer science; girls and minorities are woefully excluded. This December, Code.org will reverse this trend, calling on millions of students to engage in one Hour of Code.

The lucky few

When we were nine, our dad returned from abroad with our first computer, a Commodore 64. Little did we know that we were receiving a life-changing gift: the opportunity to learn how to code. We fell instantly in love. Growing up in post-revolutionary Iran, we found in computer programming an escape from hopelessness, a new world limited only by our creativity. By the time we moved to America as teenagers, we were proficient programmers and landed summer jobs that paid several times what other high schoolers could earn. We paid our way through college by teaching computer science to other students. By the time we turned 30, we’d each co-founded our own startups, both of which were acquired for a combined value of over a billion dollars. Almost every Silicon Valley success story — from Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg — begins the same way: with a gift, an opportunity to learn how to code.

Why should opportunity be available to only a lucky few?

Coding embodies the American Dream. Yet, ironically, most Americans are denied access to this dream. In China, every high school student must take computer science to graduate. The UK and Australia will require it soon. Meanwhile, in America, only one in 10 schools even teach computer science — a number that has declined in the last decade. The gender trend is worse yet. In the era of 1950s supercomputers, women were the pioneers in computer science. In the 1980s, 37 percent of students studying computer science were female. In 2013, it has dropped to 18 percent.

The tech industry doesn’t need help

This is not about helping the tech industry. It’s about the tech industry helping the rest of America. Today, 67 percent of software jobs are outside the tech industry. If hiring computer programmers is challenging for Silicon Valley, it’s an even greater challenge for every other industry in America. Tech jobs aside, teaching kids basic computer science is valuable no matter what career path they might choose. Every child can benefit from a strong foundation in problem-solving. As software is taking over the world, a rudimentary grasp of how it works is critical for every future lawyer, doctor, journalist, politician and more. American schools are struggling to teach basic math and English, and skeptics may worry that we can’t afford to teach anything else. We’d argue that computer science is part of the solution: it motivates kids to learn other subjects. If a school can afford to teach biology, history, chemistry and foreign languages, it should teach computer science too.

A new pillar

Every school in America teaches kids how to dissect a frog or that molecules are made of atoms. These are educational pillars that students have learned for centuries. It’s time for American schools to recognize a new pillar: computer science. Every American should have the option to learn to program a computer or how the Internet works. Classroom trials show that young children can grasp elementary computer science before they learn how to read and write. In Estonia, kids are learning computer science in first grade. Contrary to the misconception that it involves manipulating 0s and 1s, today’s computer science presents basic concepts using graphical, tactile metaphors and simple, easy-to-use tools. For girls, learning to code is empowering. It builds self confidence and independence that can serve young women in any pursuit. If you’ve ever seen the pride in your daughter’s face after she has created a computer program all by herself, you’ll understand how coding can change a young girl’s trajectory. For students from disadvantaged families, computer science is the ultimate equalizer. Computer science gives kids a reason to remain in school, not just because it’s fun and tangible, but because it offers a promise worth working towards, a door to a better future.

Let’s reverse the embarrassing trend

One obvious reason we’re behind is state-defined education standards: in 37 of 50 states, computer science doesn’t count towards math or science graduation requirements, resulting in low enrollment and programs being cut. This is easy to correct. Thanks to the advocacy efforts of Code.org and its partners, three states have changed policies this year to update graduation requirements to count computer science. Read more here.

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Kids can’t use computers… and this is why it should worry you – Coding 2 Learn

The phone rang through to my workroom. It was one of the school receptionists explaining that there was a visitor downstairs that needed to get on the school’s WiFi network. iPad in hand I trotted on down to the reception to see a young twenty-something sitting on a chair with a MacBook on her knee. I smiled and introduced myself as I sat down beside her. She handed me her MacBook silently and the look on her face said it all. Fix my computer, geek, and hurry up about it. I’ve been mistaken for a technician enough times to recognise the expression. ‘I’ll need to be quick. I’ve got a lesson to teach in 5 minutes,’ I said. ‘You teach?’ ‘That’s my job, I just happen to manage the network team as well.’ She reevaluated her categorisation of me. Rather than being some faceless, keyboard tapping, socially inept, sexually inexperienced network monkey, she now saw me as a colleague. To people like her, technicians are a necessary annoyance. She’d be quite happy to ignore them all, joke about them behind their backs and snigger at them to their faces, but she knows that when she can’t display her PowerPoint on the IWB she’ll need a technician, and so she maintains a facade of politeness around them, while inwardly dismissing them as too geeky to interact with. I looked at the MacBook. I had no experience with OSX at the time. Jobs wasn’t an idiot though, and displayed proudly in the top right hand corner of the screen was a universally recognisable WiFi symbol. It took me seconds to get the device on the network. I handed back the MacBook and the woman opened up Safari. ‘The Internet’s not working,’ she stated with disdain. I’ve heard this sentence so many times now from students and staff, that I have a stock reaction. Normally I pull out my mobile phone and pretend to tap in a few numbers. Holding the handset to my ear I say: ‘Yes, give me the office of the President of the United States…. NO, I WILL NOT HOLD. This is an emergency…. Hello, Mister President, I’m afraid I have some bad news. I’ve just been informed that The Internet is not working.’ Read more at: Kids can’t use computers… and this is why it should worry you – Coding 2 Learn.

Girls Who Code: Why I Code – The Daily Beast

For eight weeks this summer, a group of high-school girls brought together by the innovative program Girls Who Code gathered at the headquarters of IAC, the parent company of Newsweek/The Daily Beast, to learn computer programming and bridge the gender gap in the STEM fields. Here, they share their stories about how they gained the confidence to conquer the tech industry. “I have learned a tremendous amount in the eight short weeks that I have been a participant. I have learned how to code in JavaScript, Python, C, CSS, JQuery, and HTML. My high school, an all-girls Catholic school, does not offer any Computer Science classes; as a result, GWC has introduced me to a new world I would have never learned about otherwise. In addition, I have been able to connect and realize the similarities I have with these other young women who are hungry, and eager to learn, and who also hope to close the gender gap in CS… I think it is important to address the gender gap in CS because it is a real problem that begins at a young age, and is crucial to fix. A few things that I believe will help with the gender imbalance in CS would be to expose more young women in CS. Implementing courses in Computer Science to girls from ninth to twelfth grades will make it easier for young women to be exposed to CS. Instead of relying upon a program limited to the summer months, it should be throughout the school year, and either after school or on weekends. I am excited to take all that I have learned at GWC and take the first step to exposing other girls in my high school to CS, and start a Robotics/CS Club. Hopefully, this will be the first step to having a CS class in my high school later on down the line. Until then, I hope to spread the word of GWC, one girl at a time.” Read more at Girls Who Code: Why I Code – The Daily Beast.