Last week, elementary students at Springwood Elementary in Tallahassee spent a day playing interactive video games featuring characters from other popular titles such as "Plants vs. Zombies" and "Angry Birds," reported the Tallahassee Democrat. What may seem like some sort of school-sanctioned, end-of-year goof-off day was actually a lesson in computer coding -- a skill school officials believe could eventually help students land good jobs. Some experts suggest that coding programs for young children offer another benefit, too: Chipping away at a persistent diversity gap in the tech industry.
The coding program at Springwood Elementary was an initiative of Massive Academy, a local training and education venture. Massive's founder, Vincent Hunt, told the Tallahassee Democrat that the basic coding skills his firm brings to the classroom will help prepare young students for tomorrow's workforce.
"If we can make coding their native language, that's a very powerful tool," Hunt said. "By the year 2020 there will be 1 million unfillable jobs in the United States in the area of programming. How interesting would it be if Tallahassee was like a hotbed of talent for programmers?"
The movement to teach young children code is a decidedly national one. According to The New York Times, 20,000 K-12 teachers nationwide have incorporated coding lessons in their curricula since December. About 30 school districts have announced they will add coding classes in the fall, and at least one -- Chicago -- seeks to make computer programming courses a high school graduation requirement within the next five years. Elliot Soloway, a professor of education and computer science at the University of Michigan, called the spread of coding instruction in primary and secondary schools both positive and unprecedented. "There's never been a move this fast in education," he said.
Many of these lessons were provided by Code.org, an industry-backed group that offers free coding curriculum. While the group does make coding more accessible to young students, some worry that it gives the tech industry too heavy a role in education: According to The New York Times, major tech companies and their founders -- including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg -- have already donated about $10 million to the venture.
Hadi Partovi, founder of Code.org and former Microsoft executive, is inclined to disagree. He told The New York Times that every school should teach computer programming. Coding skills, he said, are as essential as "learning about gravity or molecules, electricity or photosynthesis."
Closing a projected tech skills gap is not the only heralded benefit of computer programming instruction for young children. According to PBS, some experts -- including Partovi -- believe these classes could also shepherd more women and minority students into a field where they are starkly (and increasingly) underrepresented. National Science Foundation shows that in 2001, 27.6 percent of computer science bachelor's degrees were awarded to women. By 2008, that number had fallen to a low of 17.7 percent. Census Bureau Data suggests that black and Hispanic workers are also scarce in the field.
Partovi told PBS that he believes K-12 computer science classes are key to closing tech's gender and diversity gap, since it introduces students to programming before they encounter stereotypes about whoshould(orshould not) program.
"At the younger ages, kids learn more easily and they don't have any preconceptions about what is for who or I'm not good at this or this isn't meant for me," Partovi said.
Compiled by Aimee Hosler
"Computer science's diversity gap starts early," pbs.org, May 28, 2014, Kyla Calvert,http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/teaching-coding-kids-key-closing-fields-diversity-gap/
"Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and Lately, Coding," nytimes.com, May 10, 2014, Matt Richtel,http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/11/us/reading-writing-arithmetic-and-lately-coding.html
"Springwood students learn basics of coding," tallahassee.com, May 29, 2014, Jordan Culver,http://www.tallahassee.com/story/news/education/2014/05/29/springwood-students-learn-basics-coding/9753709/