Coding in the classroom: The next generation of computer literacy

By Hillary Miller

Remember when “computers skills” meant you could type a certain number of words per minute while keeping your hands on the home row? Back in the early 2000’s, I took a keyboarding class where they taught us how to type and said, “You’re good!”. Looking back, though, there was so much more to learn.  I don’t believe my teachers were intentionally withholding information about computers and all their uses, but additional training would have been useful later in life.

After I finished my undergraduate degree, I worked as technician in a lab where the scientific questions we wanted to ask required that I learn to code, or write computer software programs. My typing class had left me unprepared for anything like coding. With the help of kind colleagues and the Internet, I was able to learn the basics of coding in a few programming languages. It was a difficult and often humbling experience, but completely necessary in order to advance my career goals.

In the current job market, computer programming is an attractive skill, but often not required. With researchers estimating that nearly 50% of jobs in the US are vulnerable to automation in the next 20 years, future generations will live in a world dominated by technology where knowledge of programming will be a necessity. And the earlier we expose children to these ideas, the more comfortable they will be when presented with more complex learning opportunities. It has been found that early exposure to basic math concepts is critical to avoid innumeracy in high school and beyond. Similarly, children learning multiple languages obtain a slew of advantages that extend past being multilingual. Programming education can utilize math and linguistics when taught with an emphasis on logical-thinking and employing language’s grammatical structure. A child doesn’t need to become a programmer to benefit from learning to code. Learning to code means learning how to think logically, creatively and work collaboratively. With numerous ways to arrive at the same answer, computer programming fosters inventiveness and perseverance, two highly translatable traits. Mitchel Resnick, a professor at MIT, sums it up nicely: “[…] what’s most important is not just learning to code, but coding to learn.”

Traditionally, STEM education has encompassed Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Recent legislation, however, has expanded STEM education to include computer science, but introducing computer programming into classrooms is still in its formative years. There are scientists looking at implementation methods among elementary and middle school children. Certain states like California have also enacted laws requiring their local boards of education and universities to develop computer science standards and allow computer science to be substituted for an advanced math credit. As California blazes the trail, hopefully other states will follow suit and pass similar laws throughout the US.

If you and/or your children cannot wait for legislation to catch up with the times, the Internet is your friend. Type “online tools for learning to code” into Google, and you’ll get over 200 million hits. After spending some time perusing these websites I have come up with a short list of the best websites with free, self-taught courses. Scratch and Code.org have courses for K-12 and engage their students in game design, art, algebra, and science. The latter also offers a free, intensive workshop to teachers interested in implementing their curriculum in the classroom. Made with Code and Girls who Code work to inspire girls to start coding and will match up young girls with a programmer mentor. Codecademy offers similar services which extends to curriculum for adults. Each website explains that if you dedicate an hour a day to learning to code you’ll get the hang of it in no time. With user-friendly interfaces and daily achievable goals, it is easy to see your progress at any level. Even if you don’t plan on making a career out of computer programming, the benefits of learning to communicate with technology you use every day is both empowering and incredibly useful.

About the author

Hillary

Hillary is a first year PhD student at the University of Michigan still deciding which department she will join. Her previous work at the University of Washington, where she received her B.S. in Cell and Molecular Biology, focused on understanding the molecular mechanisms of aging. You can catch Hillary outside of the lab at Vault of Midnight buying the newest trades of her favorite comics or at home drinking some homebrewed beer. Follow her on Twitter.

Read all posts by Hillary here.

2 thoughts on “Coding in the classroom: The next generation of computer literacy”

  1. Great post! I’d add StackOverflow to the list, just because (at least in my experience) it’s been indispensable. Although, it’s probably a better place to get specific questions answered for intermediate/advanced programmers rather than a resource for beginners. The amazing Internet support for self-taught coders is definitely out there!

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