Adding Coding to the Curriculum ; Schools around the Globe Pushing Computer Basics, Even for 5-Year- Olds

Article excerpt

Around the world, students from elementary school to the Ph.D. level are increasingly getting acquainted with the basics of computer coding.

Estonia is teaching first graders how to create their own computer games and offering scholarships to entice more undergraduates into technology-driven disciplines. In England, an updated national curriculum will soon expose every child in the state school system to computer programming, starting at age five. The American "Hour of Code" effort says it has already persuaded 28 million people to give programming a try.

Around the world, students from elementary school to the Ph.D. level are increasingly getting acquainted with the basics of coding, as computer programming is also known. From Singapore to Tallinn, governments, educators and advocates from the tech industry argue that it has become crucial to hold at least a basic understanding of how the devices that play such a large role in modern life actually work.

Such knowledge, the advocates say, is important not only to individual students' future career prospects, but also for their countries' economic competitiveness and the technology industry's ability to find qualified workers.

Exposing students to coding from an early age helps to demystify an area that can be intimidating. It also breaks down stereotypes of computer scientists as boring geeks, supporters argue. Plus, they say, programming is highly creative: Studying it can help to develop problem-solving abilities, as well as equip students for a world transformed by technology.

"We don't teach music in school to make everyone a concert violinist," says Clive Beale, director of educational development at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a nonprofit organization based near Cambridge, England that promotes computer studies in schools. "We're not trying to make everyone a computer scientist, but what we're saying is, 'this is how these things work, it's good for everyone to understand the basics of how these things work. And by the way, you might be really good at it."'

On top of that, the supporters say, children love it.

"Kids these days are all stuck to their phones, their tablets, and are constantly using technology, but very few of them are learning how to create it," said Roxanne Emadi, a strategist at Code.org, an advocacy group based in Seattle that is behind the Hour of Code effort. "Even if it's something simple, like a kid programming a maze or programming a robot, when you can see your work brought to life, that's where light bulbs go off."

Teachers "are using it like candy: 'If you finish your work, we can do 10 minutes of the computer science tutorials at the end of class as a treat,"' she said. "When you're teaching 8-year-olds, the stereotypes haven't set in yet."

In Estonia, widely regarded as one of Europe's technology-savvy societies, raising computer literacy even higher is a top national priority. Before becoming technology skills coordinator at the country's Ministry of Economic Affairs, Ave Lauringson led ProgeTiiger, a project training schoolteachers to engage pupils with programming and other high-tech areas.

The effort, she said, is continuing to grow, along with demand. "Parents are looking for after-school activities for their kids and asking, 'Where can I put my kids to do coding?' Or 'Where is a robotics class?"'

A joint public-private effort called the IT Academy is concentrating on the university level, seeking to improve fields like software engineering and cybersecurity by hiring more professors, recruiting students from abroad and offering scholarships for graduate and undergraduate studies.

Kristiina Rahkema, studying for masters' degrees in software engineering and math at the University of Tartu, Estonia, said she relished the opportunities opened by computing skills.

"If I had a good idea, I could just start a company," she said. Anyone who can code, she said, "will never have trouble finding a job, all of the companies are searching for candidates. …

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