By: Gunnar Mein
I remember growing up and looking forward to my first computer science class back in Germany. My brother had taken it before, and both he and I had pooled money to buy a computer. When the class came around, I learned about computers and programming, and thinking systematically to solve problems. The year was 1985. Today, nearly four decades later, more than half of U.S. high schools don’t offer programming or computer science classes. How can this be? It is sometimes disheartening to see the eye-rolling by school administrators across the country when one suggests that programming classes should not only be offered, but that they should become a mandatory part of any modern curriculum. Along with the well-established attitude of “I am not a math person, not everybody has to be a math person”, opting whole districts of students out of getting the necessary skills for a profitable career in STEM fields is still somehow ok. It needs to change.
When we celebrate Computer Science Education Week, it’s a little bit of a high-falutin' misnomer. Programming is what is learned first, and it’s only a small part of the vast field of computer science. Programming can be learned with graphical tools like Scratch, along with high-powered algorithms like neural networks, or in very playful ways like LEGO robotics. It really doesn’t matter how kids are introduced to programming: all ways create new layers of ability to think abstractly and to solve problems methodically. Once a kid learns programming, they simply will not look at the world the same way. They will own concepts in their minds that they understand down to first principles – like how to move a robot around a corner, and how that relates to cars. They become equipped to be the problem solvers of tomorrow. And it never stops: Just like no one will ever read all the books on Earth, so is there always more programming to explore. Some will indeed end up going into computer science. Others will take related tech careers. Many will apply their skills to their work in biology or chemistry. Code touches every aspect of our lives. The next generation cannot succeed without understanding the basics.
When should kids learn programming? Whenever they show the slightest interest. Scratch is designed to be learned even by young students. Robotics programs exist for grades Pre-K into adulthood (learn more at firstinspires.org). Ask them to bring a friend (kids like doing anything better with a friend).