Why do I need to learn this?

If you are a parent or an educator, you know this question is coming sooner or later, in all its maddening simplicity: why do I need to learn this? Kids should be asking this question. Adults too. I’m pretty sure none of us got a great answer when as teenagers we asked why we needed to learn trigonometry – I’m still waiting for the answer to that one. Let’s fix that with coding. Why do we need to learn to code?

At Codesters we believe that today’s students need to learn to code because a new world awaits them. The probability that today’s student will find herself needing to understand coding in multiple domains is high, as high as it has ever been. A biologist needs to code because she is using bioinformatics to compare gene sequences. A climate scientist researching melting glaciers needs to code to build her data into a climate change model. A graphic designer needs code to make her designs come to life on the Internet. And a linguistics researcher uses code to compare ancient texts and model how language changes over time. We aren’t just talking about software engineering here, though that is of course a growing field. We are talking about coding as a literacy and tool that is becoming ingrained in almost every profession, just as computers themselves can be found in nearly every field.

There are two popular phrases thrown about by those of us working to bring coding into schools: “stop playing games and start making them” & “you could be the next Mark Zuckerberg”. While those slogans are exciting, we find that they don’t go far enough to address the interests for the majority of our students. What percentage of students will be motivated to learn coding by either prospect: video game design or tech entrepreneurship? Perhaps 5-10 percent? Wouldn’t that 5-10 percent find ways to learn coding on their own anyway? We need to provide a compelling answer to the remaining 90 percent.

The most compelling answer is the truth. Coding will be an increasingly important part of a majority of professions in the near future, including the fields they are already considering for their own futures. If we explain to our students how vast coding’s reach will be for them, and how exciting it is to solve problems using the power of code, our students will approach learning to code in school knowing why it’s important (something we never had in trigonometry class).

My advice is to be to be sure you can tell your students how coding will play a critical role in whatever professions they want to pursue, so they know why they should be excited to learn to code.

I will be presenting at a panel on Coding in the Math Classroom at this year’s ISTE conference in Denver on June 27th. If you are at ISTE, stop be the STEM Playground on Monday morning at 8:50 AM and say hi!

– Gordon

Coding’s Ratatouille Moment

By Gordon Smith, CEO and Co-Founder, and David Oblath, Co-Founder, Codesters

Central to the mission and work of Codesters is our shared vision that all children should get the opportunity to learn computer science. Computer science positively contributes to the development of crucial skills such as teamwork, problem solving, and logic. Coding itself is essential to numerous fields of study in science and beyond.

A crucial corollary to this vision is our core belief that anyone – any child – has the ability for computer science. For too long computer science was seen as only appropriate for “advanced” students, especially “advanced” students in more privileged school settings. As we have seen at Codesters, there are no demographic markers – not race, nor gender, nor class, that correlate with a child’s ability to code. Children with IEPs, with learning delays, or with chronic classroom behavior issues have also proven to excel at coding.

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Ratatouille Picture Courtesy Pixar / Disney

That anyone can code – that we should never assume a child “can’t” – brings to mind a movie our kids love, the 2007 Disney Pixar film Ratatouille. The motto of the famed Chef Gusteau, that “anyone can cook”, looms large to both aspiring chef Linguini and his pal and star of the movie, the rat Remy. By the end of Ratatouille, Linguini and Remy achieve great things in their chosen profession, with the latter being called “nothing less than the finest chef in France.”

We both love this about Ratatouille – the constant reminder and reinforcement that “anyone can cook.” The next great chef could come from anywhere; indeed, anyone with passion, even a rat like Remy, can create the next great meal. Ratatouille teaches us that we can never know who will emerge as the next superstar in any given field.

As the school year winds down and the next school year appears on the horizon, the CS-in-schools movement has reached its Ratatouille moment. Where are the solutions to the next set of complex problems going to come from? Who will develop the next great software platform? Just as we can never know who the next great cook will be, so too may the next great programmer come from any community, anywhere.

Will every kid who is exposed to computer science become a professional computer scientist, paid to write code? Probably not. But just as everyone needs to know how to cook, even a little, so too does everyone, and especially every child, need that taste of computer science (and hopefully a good bit more) in order to address the challenges we all face. From the pool of coding-literate young adults, superstars will emerge where they otherwise might never have.

So as the debate continues as to whether everyone, including every student, should learn to code, and just as the US Computer Education community continues to go back and forth on whether US schools are teaching kids how to code the right way, at Codesters we remain resolute that, like cooking, coding is something we’re all capable of doing. This is what animates our work and drives our efforts to reach more schools, districts, and teachers. To paraphrase Chef Gusteau: “anyone can code”.