By Hank Pellissier
Computer programming has never been taught as a core subject in schools, but perhaps it should be.
Alas, there's no guarantee that computer science will be offered at your child's school; in fact, there's a good chance it isn't. Despite the chorus of future-focused experts advocating for better computer science education in our K-12 schools, many schools aren't meeting the challenge.
The U.S. may be the birthplace of IBM, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and umpteen other computer science-inspired giants, but in the past two decades we’ve fallen behind other countries when it comes to pumping out trained computer scientists. American universities still boast some of the best science and engineering graduate programs, yet many of those spots are filled by foreign students. According to the 2006 Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering, the number of foreign graduate students enrolled in science and engineering fields increased by 45 percent between 1996 and 2006, while enrollment for U.S. citizens/residents increased only 8 percent.
"We are not preparing our students out of high school to compete in the area of science and engineering very well," explained John Borrelli, dean of the Texas Tech University graduate school.
What’s next — kinder code?
Doug Rushkoff, CNN columnist and author of Program or Be Programmed, is one of the nation’s leading digital crusaders. He argues that our schools need to incorporate computer programming into our core curriculum or get left behind. "It's time Americans begin treating computer code the way we do the alphabet or arithmetic,” he writes. According to Rushkoff, there is such a dearth of skilled programmers in the U.S. that firms like Google and Facebook buy entire companies, simply to gain access to their code-literate employees. “If you know how to code, you can likely get a high-paying job right now,” writes Rushkoff. “You will be enabling America to compete effectively on both the economic and military frontiers, where we are rapidly losing our competitive advantage due to our failure to teach ourselves code…"
Making sure our kids learn code isn't just smart career planning, Rushkoff contends, it's practically a patriotic duty.
Decline of CS in HS
How far are we behind? It’s hard to say. A recent poll of 18 nations by the Paris-based OECD Programme for International Assessment (PISA) gave the #1 ranking in digital literacy to South Korea, with New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and Hong Kong close behind. The U.S. wasn't tested, but Ron Anderson, professor of the Sociology of Technology at University of Minnesota, estimates that the USA, "probably would have performed in the middle third of the countries… But we will never know [because] the last student assessment of digital literacy involving American students was in 1992."
If we can’t determine our student’s digital literacy skills as compared to other countries, there are few signs we are trying to improve our standing. The number of CS classes offered in American high schools has declined in recent years. A 2009 survey by the Computer Science Teacher's Association reports in The Journal that the percentage of high schools offering CS classes dropped from 78 percent in 2005 to 65 percent in 2009, while the percentage of AP computer classes fell from 40 percent in 2005 to 27 percent in 2009. The Journal lists multiple excuses for CS classes disappearing (none of them reassuring): a lack of teacher subject knowledge, difficult subject matter, lack of student interest, a lack of staff support.
Mark Guzdial, professor in the school of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology observed that because of bureaucratic rules and technological limitations that "learning computing in USA high schools is like learning programming in the developing world."
Times they are a’coding?
America may be waking up from its CS slumber. Codecademy, a website launched in August 2011 that offers free "coding" tutorials, has already been used by millions of code-hungry visitors. On January 5, 2012 New York mayor Michael Bloomberg tweeted his New Year's resolution to learn programming. On January 17, CNN columnist Doug Rushkoff presented his essay, "Why I Am Learning To Code and You Should Too."
But getting your future code geek enrolled in computer science classes may require some effort. There are public high schools which offer excellent programs. Montgomery Blair High School in Maryland has a team that's a frequent champion at the American Computer Science League contests. Other top contenders include Cary Academy in North Carolina, Tacoma Park Middle School in Maryland, and Jefferson Sci-Tech in Virginia.
If you dwell in the Big Apple, and your teen wants to pursue the mayor's new hobby, the best bet could be the Computer Science Institute at John Dewey High School. This rigorous program requires a longer school day for extra classes, and awards graduates Microsoft Office Systems certification.
But even if your child’s high school doesn't offer any CS classes, you can still help your son or daughter learn what some have dubbed an essential 21st century skill. In addition to Codecademy, Khan Academy has plans to offer CS training. For more immersive experiences you can choose from one of InternalDrive.com's140 "tech camps" for kids 7 to 18 years old. If these tuition prices are beyond your budget, perhaps they can qualify for "Code Summer Plus" — a condensed version of Codecademy's curriculum that is part of President Obama's Summer Jobs Plus Initiative.
No matter how you do it, keep the ultimate goal in mind: your child’s future opportunities. How bright are the chances of future employment for CS specialists? A Georgetown University study estimates that from 2005-2018 there will be a 2.2 - 2.6% annual employment increase in computer and mathematical science occupations, with 700,000 of the 800,000 new jobs occupied by computer specialists. Many of these jobs will bring considerable rewards. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "In May 2008, median annual wages of computer systems software engineers were $92,430." Be aware though — the number of "programming-only" jobs will decline, largely due to increased use of software interfaces. Explosive growth is in other computer fields — especially apps development. The smartphone industry has created almost 466,000 jobs since 2007, generating $20 billion in 2011 alone.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that not every child has what it takes to be a computer scientist. Not only are strong problem-solving and analytical skills essential, but it also helps to be detail-oriented, and to have a crackerjack memory. So before you engineer an education makeover for your child, make sure your child is as excited by the prospect as you are.