A first-grader in Philadelphia recently became the world's youngest known computer game programmer, reported CBS Philadelphia. The 7-year-old, Zora Ball, learned coding through "Bootstrap," a program designed to teach programming. Ball spent one Saturday in a special class learning the foundations of code, spent ten weeks being introduced to the basics and then built her own video game, which she named "Vampire Diamonds." The object of the game is to get the diamond and avoid the vampire, explained Tariq Al-Nasir, who helped teach Ball coding, to CBS. Vampire Diamonds will be available online by the end of this summer, according to ABC 6 News, with an app to follow next year.
A push for better STEM education in schools
This story is unusual, but it taps into a dialog that has become increasingly common among educators, IT professionals and legislators: the need to provide better science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. In President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, he directly challenged high schools to do a better job of preparing their students for technical careers.
One STEM area in particular that has gathered growing support among the technology community is computer science. Groups are pushing for additional computer classes in elementary, middle and high schools so that students have a better understanding of technology. They want students to have opportunities – like the one offered to Zora Ball – to learn coding and computer programming.
This push is motivated in large part by the shortage of qualified candidates to fill STEM jobs, which is predicted to become even greater in the years to come – especially in the computer science field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that only 30 percent of the 1.4 million U.S. jobs created in computer science between now and 2020 will be able to be filled, reported Forbes.
Teaching coding in schools
A number of organizations have advocated for computer coding instruction in schools. But it has been difficult for them to make progress because coding is not a skill traditionally taught and it's difficult to learn, reported Forbes. In fact, computer science education has been decreasing, with introductory computer science courses down 17 percent since 2005. Additionally, Forbes noted, only 5 percent of high schools offer AP classes in computer science, according to CodeHS's Jeremy Keeshin.
"If you look at the statistics," Keeshin told Forbes, "it is clear that one of the most in-demand STEM skills is computer science, and this is one that most high schools are neglecting. While many areas of the economy are stagnating, there are over 100,000 jobs in CS-related fields that can't be filled."
Keeshin is the co-founder of CodeHS, which helps schools introduce a coding curriculum to their students. Their website provides information about the fundamentals of coding, offers instructional videos, provides support to teachers and also has a team of online tutors that are available to help students. So far, they have 20 high schools signed up, wrote Forbes, and hope to boost that number in the coming year to several hundred. Eventually, they want all high schools in the country to begin offering coding.
Keeshin attributed the lack of CS education to a few different things: schools don't have computer science teachers (or don't have the budget to hire them), computer science isn't required, so schools aren't trying to make room in their already-packed curriculum; the idea of computer science as it's currently presented isn't appealing to students; and existing educational materials used to teach computer science aren't exciting for students. He hopes that his organization – and other groups advocating for computer science education – can change that. New classroom software that breaks complex computer science concepts into manageable and fun lessons could also benefit students and teachers alike.
Do you think students should learn computer science skills in elementary, middle or high school? Are there technical skills that you think are important for students to acquire by the time they graduate? Please share your thoughts below!