The Miami Heat’s Chris Bosh knows how to code. So do Will.i.am, Ashton Kutcher and Shakira.
And elementary school students are figuring it out, too: Learning to write and develop software opens a world of opportunities. American K-12 educators are among those at the forefront of a movement that’s bringing coding and related STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — to young students.
“According to the National Science Foundation surveys, the greatest need for future STEM workers will be in computer science-related fields, especially computer programming/coding,” says Kevin Tambara, who teaches science in sixth grade at Bert Lynn Middle School in Torrance, Calif.
He’s targeting that need in his classroom.
Tambara, who has taught for 12 years and is in his first year of teaching sixth grade and coding, is a recognized STEM innovator in middle and high schools.
He’s a former aerospace engineer and Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow who’s been awarded STEM grants for fields like holography, slo-mo science, soft circuits, the science of magic, the science of music and creative computing. Local organizations — like the Torrance Unified School District and the Torrance Education Foundation — as well as national entities — NASA, the Department of Energy and MIT — have funded Tambara’s efforts.
‘It’s My Favorite Class’
It’s paying off. Tambara’s middle school students have applied their coding and engineering skills to build functional paper roller-coasters, solar-powered racers, Popsicle-stick catapults and mousetrap-powered boats. His sixth-grade class made an app that works on Android phones.
“I like his class because we get to code and build things,” Omar, an 11-year-old student, says. “We built a catapult. I made my own app. We made hover cars that we raced and we experimented with electricity. It’s my favorite class. It makes me want to be a coder or game designer.”
But development is not part of the school district’s curriculum.
“Ironically, computer programming courses are typically not offered in our nation’s public schools. This means that any potential computer ‘wizard’ attending school today may likely not have an opportunity to discover his or her ‘powers’ — and earn a great living while contributing to society, by the way,” Tambara says. “I’m giving my students such an opportunity while I have them in my classroom for a school year.”
Tambara, who knows Basic, C, Python, Scratch and App Inventor, says infusing computer science into his curriculum reflects how science is taught and used in the real world.
Sheena Vaidyanathan, a former computer scientist and technology entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, teaches computer science weekly to about 500 sixth-graders in the Los Altos School District in California’s Bay Area.
“Coding helps students learn many things — abstraction, problem solving and math. It gives students a way to express their creativity,” Vaidyanathan says. “And, of course, it is fun!”
But just 16 percent of U.S. high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and show interest in a STEM career, according to the Department of Education. And, among those who do pursue STEM courses in college, only about half end up working in STEM fields.
Scratching an Itch
In his sixth-grade classes, Tambara uses a free program for kids called Scratch.
Created by Mitch Resnick, the director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT Media Lab, the programming language allows students to create animations, games and stories, and connect with others. Omar’s class has already used the “10 Block Challenge” on Scratch where students must follow specific rules to make an app.
During a Ted Talks appearance, Resnick emphasized that children can become fluent with new technology rather than merely browsing, chatting, gaming and texting. Resnick says students have experience interacting with new technologies “but a lot less so of creating or expressing themselves with new technologies.” He hopes to change that.
So, too, does programming advocate Code.org, which says nine out of 10 K-12 schools do not offer computer programming classes. Computer science classes are mainly treated as electives.
The non-profit seeks to address the shortage of engineers in the United States, particularly software and web developers, and is dedicated to promoting computer science education.
Code.org started a nationwide campaign called “Hour of Code” that’s aimed at introducing 60 minutes of coding to K-12 students during Computer Science Education Week, last held in December. Web titans Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and less tech-savvy celebrities — like Bosh, Kutcher and Shakira — support it. In a video on Code.org, President Barack Obama urges students: “Don’t just play on your phone, program it.”
High Pay, High Impact — but not as Much Interest
Computer science is one of the highest-paid college degrees for new graduates, according to Code.org, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs it as one of the highest-paid fields. Programming jobs are growing at two times the national average, but there’s a dearth of graduates to fill these positions.
“Almost everything in STEM today is supported by computing in some form or another. How computing happens, and how it helps in, say, the design of an airplane wing, or the development of a new drug, is a mystery to most people,” explains Dr. Reinhard Laubenbacher, who started Kids’ Tech University (KTU) and is a biology professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center.
The goal behind KTU, a program at Virginia Tech, is “to create the future workforce in STEM by sparking kids’ interest in these fields.”
Laubenbacher says the program seeks to create excitement around the STEM disciplines, showing children they are “full of unexplored frontiers and unknowns.” He says STEM fields can solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.
“Learning how to code lifts a little edge of that mystery,” he says. “Learning how to code is also important as an exercise in logical thinking, in following specific rules, in being extraordinarily precise in one’s statements.”
Laubenbacher says they are gathering data and analyzing the benefits of positive STEM experiences at a young age.
Working with someone who is excited about “the adventure of pursuing the unknown makes that excitement rub off and change attitudes about STEM.” This extends to the kids’ parents, too.
“Some of these kids will become scientists later, some will become politicians, and all will become voters,” he says. “An appreciation of science and an understanding of how important it is in our daily lives will make all of them be better citizens.”