NPR logo The President Wants Every Student To Learn Computer Science. How Would That Work?

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The President Wants Every Student To Learn Computer Science. How Would That Work?

Girl watching State Of The Union Address on her computer i
LA Johnson/NPR
Girl watching State Of The Union Address on her computer
LA Johnson/NPR

President Obama used his final State of the Union address Tuesday night to reflect on his legacy. But he also put forth some specific proposals for his remaining year in office. And the very first one was "helping students learn to write computer code."

Elaborating on the educational achievements of the past several years, Obama pointed to the overhaul of No Child Left Behind, the increase in pre-K programs, and rising high school graduation rates.

Then he said:

"In the coming years, we should build on that progress, by ... offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on Day 1."

He's not the only proponent of this idea. The biggest public school systems in the country, New York City and Los Angeles Unified, have both announced that they're moving toward exposing all students to computer science. Coding is also newly part of national curricula in the U.K. and Australia.

The United States, of course, has no national curriculum. The Computer Science Teachers Association estimates that only about one-tenth of the high schools in the U.S. — to say nothing of middle and elementary schools — offer a computer science course today.

Getting a new, complex, technical subject onto the agendas of our public schools is a massive challenge, one that NPR Ed has been covering in lots of different ways. Here's a sampling of those voices.

The Student

Isabelle Crawford-Eng, 15, is a sophomore at Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua, N.H., and a student in the honors programming class. Every freshman at Bishop Guertin, a small Catholic school, is required to take a one-semester introduction to computer science.

"My mom is an engineer for a pretty big software company," Isabelle says. "I used to come to her office on a daily basis, but I shied away from programming because it looked really challenging and difficult. Once I took the class last year, I realized everybody has the ability to program and write code. I never understood how it worked, how it involved puzzle skills and problem solving.

"One thing I really love about engineering is having an idea inside of your mind and being able to execute it using a few lines of code."

Her favorite project: "I built a slot machine-type game. Colors and numbers would come up randomly."

What she would tell another student who was considering computer science: "One of the big things that deter people is that they think, 'I'm not smart enough,' or, 'It's too hard'. What people don't know is that it's hard for everybody. The key to success is sticking with it."

The Teacher

Alfred Thompson, Isabelle's teacher, is a former Microsoft engineer and a member of the board of the Computer Science Teachers Association, the national professional group for computer science teachers.

"Our one-semester intro course is required for graduation," Thompson says. "We cover a lot of concepts, vocabulary, and we spend a third of the semester doing actual programming. It's more like an art class than a physics class. We want to cut the kids loose and give them some flexibility to choose projects that they can relate to.

"At least once a semester I hear some kid yell, 'Wow! This is like magic!' and that really motivates them."

On expanding computer science nationwide: "There are three problems. One is fitting it into the schedule. The second problem is teachers. If you're really good at computer science you can make a lot of money working in industry. I made a lot more money at Microsoft. For me [teaching] is a quality-of-life decision."

The third problem, Thompson says, is professional development. "There are very few programs at the university level for training computer science teachers."

The Social Entrepreneur

Sal Khan is the founder of Khan Academy.

"The hard thing about programming is, it hasn't been there traditionally," he told NPR Ed's Eric Westervelt in a recent interview. "So, you know, we're trying to find space for it in the traditional school system. A lot of educators haven't been exposed to it when they were young. So that's the challenge. But there's also an opportunity in that there isn't anything to replace. It's green field, it's a new area, and there's all sorts of incredible tools for people to learn."

The City Builder

Leigh Ann Sudol-DeLyser is with CSNYC, a nonprofit that has committed to matching New York City's $40 million investment and otherwise helping implement the city's Computer Science For All initiative.

"As early as 1993, a group originally convened by Ronald Reagan's White House recommended that every student do a half-credit of computer science as part of graduation requirements," she says. "Today, when we have two to three computers on our persons at all times, it's even more imperative that students understand how it interacts with their world."

On what Computer Science For All means:

"It's a balance between requiring schools to do something meaningful, but giving them options and flexibility to identify what that is. In the early grades it's a little bit more about play. Sometimes it's a pullout where the kids get computer science content separate from what else is going on.

"Other programs we've supported have taken more of an integrated approach. We also want to provide some schools the ability to focus on this for kids who really want to pursue this as a career."

In 2012 and 2013, Sudol-Delyser says, New York City opened the Academy for Software Engineering and the Bronx Academy for Software Engineering, public high schools dedicated to computer science.

On the biggest challenges:

"The pipeline is the biggest issue. There isn't a pipeline. There's no certification for teaching computer science [in New York]. We're taking people who trained to be teachers and giving them some CS knowledge so they can step into a classroom and help kids. This is a Band-Aid."

On the involvement of the tech industry:

"We're asking them for money — we're also asking them to get involved. We're getting companies to engage their engineers to volunteer in schools, to talk in the classroom, or run a whole-day hackathon like Google did last year at the Academy for Software Engineering, or job shadowing, or taking students on as mentees."

The Ed Tech Entrepreneur

Grant Hosford is the creator of The Foos, a game designed to introduce coding to pre-readers.

"If we were teaching coding like reading and math, we would break it down into bite-size chunks, make it more fun with songs and stories, and give students two decades to reach mastery," he told me in September. "With coding, we throw you in the deep end in high school or college and are surprised when most kids drown."

The Creative Technologist

Mitch Resnick at the MIT Media Lab helped create Scratch and ScratchJr., computer languages designed expressly to introduce children to programming.

"Coding is not just a set of technical skills," he said last month. "It's a new way of expressing yourself. It's similar to learning to write — a way for kids to organize, express and share ideas. But instead of putting words into sentences, now they can create animated stories.

"If you have kids put blocks together to solve the puzzle, that can be useful for learning basic computing concepts. But we think it's missing an important part of what's exciting about coding. If you present just logic puzzles, it's like teaching them writing by only teaching grammar and punctuation."

The Child Development Expert

Marina Umaschi Bers is a professor both of child and human development and of computer science at Tufts University.

"Our research shows learning how to program has an impact in improving sequencing skills," she told me in September. "If you get better at sequencing, it has a measurable positive effect on reading comprehension. A parent can have their kid engage in coding with the knowledge that a lot of kids won't become programmers, but there is this broad-based benefit."

The Brit

David Miller is the director of learning for Kuato Studios, which produces games that teach coding. They're in use in a few hundred schools in the U.K.

"In the U.K. the curriculum hits every child. It's wonderful seeing girls equally as engaged as boys. And I think it's a really interesting cultural shift. The whole talk around it seems much more positive and geared to entrepreneurship and enterprise."

The Dissenters

Not everyone is thrilled with the notion of putting more emphasis on computers in the classroom:

The Psychiatrist

Victoria Dunckley, a child psychiatrist in Los Angeles, is the author of Reset Your Child's Brain, about the dangers of technology use. She would prefer holding off introducing screens in classrooms until middle or even high school.

"Even educational screen time can cause a lot of issues," she said in September. "A lot of these kids can't tolerate any kind of screen time at all. I used to be able to just write a note for the kid to take to school to say, 'Don't have any computer time.' But that's changed with iPads and the Common Core. ... I am horrified by the flipped classroom."

The School Leader

Brad Zacuto, head of Westside Neighborhood School in Los Angeles, which integrates technology starting in second grade and has parents sign a pledge to limit screen time at home:

"It's like putting a child behind a wheel of a car," he told us in 2014. There's a lot of power there. ... [Technology] is here to stay. But at some point you have to teach kids how to drive a car responsibly."

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