A Push To Boost Computer Science Learning, Even At An Early Age

Feb 17, 2014
Originally published on February 23, 2014 10:11 am

A handful of nonprofit and for-profit groups are working to address what they see as a national education crisis: Too few of America's K-12 public schools actually teach computer science basics and fewer still offer it for credit.

It's projected that in the next decade there will be about 1 million more U.S. jobs in the tech sector than computer science graduates to fill them. And it's estimated that only about 10 percent of K-12 schools teach computer science.

So some in the education technology sector, an industry worth some $8 billion a year and growing, are stepping in.

At a Silicon Valley hotel recently, venture capitalists and interested parties heard funding pitches and watched demonstrations from 13 ed-tech startups backed by an incubator called Imagine K-12. One of them is Kodable, which aims to teach kids 5 years old and younger the fundamentals of programming through a game where you guide a Pac-Man-esque fuzz ball.

"As soon as you can start learning [coding] you should, because the earlier you start learning something, the better you'll be at it later in life," says Grechen Huebner, the co-founder of Kodable. She's working two computer screens to demonstrate how the game works.

"Kids have to drag and drop symbols to get their fuzzy character to go through a maze so they learn about conditions, loops and functions and even debugging," she says.

So should kids who've barely shed their pull-up diapers really learn to code? Huebner thinks it's vital. "We have kids as young as 2 using it. Five is just kinda the sweet spot."

(My daughter's behind, I think. She's 4 and hasn't started coding. Bad parent.)

Even if kids aren't offered game-based computer science concepts in pre-K, there is growing consensus students should get exposed to basic computer science concepts early. Kodable and other startups hope to make a profit filling this enormous void in American public education.

"Ninety percent of schools just don't even teach it. So if you're a parent and your school doesn't even offer this class, your kids aren't going to have the preparation they need for the 21st century," says Hadi Partovi, co-founder of the nonprofit Code.org. "Just like we teach how electricity works and biology basics, they should also know how the Internet works and how apps work. Schools need to add this to the curriculum."

Through his "Hour of Code" initiative, Partovi is working to get kids, parents and schools interested computer science curriculum.

'It's All Around Us'

Third-graders at a public elementary school in Baltimore recently took part in a game-based Hour of Code to start to learn the very basics of coding even though they don't realize it.

"So you're moving three blocks and then you press start," one third-grader says.

Gretchen LeGrand with the nonprofit Code in the Schools is trying to bring computer science fundamentals to underserved, low-income kids in the city. She says it's a huge challenge in a district with few resources.

"The computers are old or outdated. We either can't install the software we want to use to teach computer programming or the connection's slow," she says. She's had to adapt to teaching about coding without a computer or what more teachers are calling teaching CS unplugged.

Partovi says teaching computer science is not about esoteric knowledge for computer geeks or filling jobs at Google or Microsoft. Most of these jobs are not with big high-tech companies. It's about training a globally competitive workforce and keeping most every sector of the U.S. economy thriving.

"Our future lawyers and doctors and politicians and businessmen — the folks in the other jobs — need to have a little bit of a background about how the world around them works," Partovi says. "It's all around us, and every industry gets impacted by it."

According to a study by the largest U.S. computing society, only 14 states have adopted secondary school standards for computer science. At the same time, there's been a sharp decline in the last five years in the number of introductory and advanced placement (AP) computer science classes offered in U.S. secondary schools.

Ironically, that decline comes just as states tout improvements to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curricula. And several groups and corporations have voiced deep concern that the new Common Core state standards promote no significant computer science content in either math or science.

There are some bright spots: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Broward County, Fla., have all recently boosted their commitments to expanding computer science offerings. But there's a long way to go, says Chris Stephenson, who directs the Computer Science Teachers Association. She says a big problem is profound confusion about just what computer science is. Too many parents and administrators conflate gaming and basic point-and-click literacy with computer science — the principles and practices of computing and coding.

"I've had administrators actually say to me in all good intention, 'I know kids are learning computer science in my schools because there are computers in the schools.' And that is just not true," Stephenson says.

"I think that they just don't understand that having access to a computer isn't the same as learning computer science any more than having a Bunsen burner in the cupboard is the same as learning chemistry," she says. "There's a scientific discipline here you can't just learn by playing around with the technology."

Informational Divide

The "guesstimate" is that only 5 to 10 percent of schools teach computer science, based largely on data on students who take the AP test in computer science annually. The real percentage may be lower. Nobody tracks the figures nationally.

Some sobering stats from last year's AP data:

  • In Mississippi, Montana and Wyoming, no girls took the computer science exam.
  • In 11 states, no black students took it.
  • In eight states, no Hispanics took it.
  • In 17 states, fewer than 100 students took it.

"It's crazy small. I mean it would be absurd if it weren't so scary; that's how terrifying it is," Stephenson says.

So never mind the hardware-based digital divide, there's a growing digital information divide. Computer science education, it seems, is now privileged knowledge accessible mostly by affluent kids.

"The people that are most likely to succeed have access to it and other kids do not, and we really need to look at those facts and figures and be horrified by them," Stephenson says.

She says the Hour of Code — which has reached millions of students around the world — is a terrific start. But until more public schools offer computer science — for credit — she says the knowledge gap will only continue to widen.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're going to hear now about what some are calling a national crisis in education. At a time when many potential employers demand advanced computer skills, very few American public schools are teaching the basics of computer science. Some nonprofit and for-profit companies are trying to change that, but among the many challenges they face is confusion over what computer science actually means. Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: The education technology sector in America is an $8 billion a year industry and growing, so it's little wonder Tesla driving venture capitalists recently filled a Silicon Valley hotel for a morning of funding pitches. On display, 13 ed tech start-ups working with an incubator called Imagine K-12.

GRECHEN HUEBNER: As soon as you can start learning, you should, because the earlier you start learning something, the better you'll be at it later in life.

WESTERVELT: Grechen Huebner is co-founder of the startup Kodable. She's working two computer screens set up on a hotel lobby table. Kodable aims to teach kids five years and younger the fundamentals of programming through a game where you guide a Pac-Man-like fuzz ball.

HUEBNER: Kids have to drag and drop symbols to get their fuzzy character to go through a maze, so they learn about conditions, loops and functions, and even debugging.

WESTERVELT: So should kids who've barely shed their pull-up diapers really learn to code? Huebner thinks it's vital.

HUEBNER: We have kids as young as two using it. So five is just kind of the sweet spot.

WESTERVELT: So my daughter's behind. She's four and she hasn't started coding.

HUEBNER: She needs to learn. You're failing as a parent.

WESTERVELT: Bad parent.

HUEBNER: Bad parent.

WESTERVELT: Even if kids aren't offered computer science gaming in pre-K, there is growing consensus students should get exposed to the basic concepts early. Kodable and other startups hope to make a profit filling an enormous void in American public education. Very few K through 12 schools offer classes in computer science and those that do often make them non-credit electives that don't count toward graduation requirements.

Hadi Partovi is the founder of the nonprofit Code.org.

HADI PARTOVI: Ninety percent of schools just don't even teach it. So if you're a parent and your school doesn't even offer this class, your kids aren't going to have the preparation that they need for 21st century. Just like we teach how electricity works, they should also know how the Internet works and how apps work.

WESTERVELT: Through his group's initiative, Hour of Code, Partovi is working to get kids, parents and especially schools more interested in computer science curriculum.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yes. I made it past.

WESTERVELT: Third graders at a school in Baltimore recently took part in a game-based Hour of Code to start to try to learn the very basics of coding, even though they don't realize it.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: The baseball and the hat, so you're moving three blocks and then you press start.

WESTERVELT: Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in the next decade there will be about a million more U.S. jobs in the tech sector than computer science graduates to fill them. Partovi says this isn't about esoteric knowledge for computer geeks or filling jobs at Google.

Most computer science jobs are not with big high tech companies. It's about training a globally competitive workforce, he says, and keeping most every sector of the U.S. economy thriving.

PARTOVI: Our future lawyers and doctors and politicians and businessmen, the folks in the other jobs, need to have a little bit of a background about how the world around them works. It's all around us, and every industry gets impacted by it.

WESTERVELT: According to a study by the largest U.S. computing society, only 14 states have adopted secondary school standards for computer science. At the same time, there's been a sharp decline in the last five years in the number of introductory and advanced placement computer science classes offered in U.S. secondary schools.

Ironically, that decline comes just as states tout improvements to STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math curricula. And several groups and corporations have voiced deep concern that the new Common Core state standards promote no significant computer science content in either math or science.

There are some bright spots: New York, Chicago, L.A. and Broward County, Florida have all recently boosted their commitments to expanding computer science offerings. But there's a long way to go, says Chris Stephenson. The director of the Computer Science Teachers Association says a big problem is profound confusion about just what computer science is. Too many parents and administrators conflate gaming and basic point-and-click literacy with computer science, the principles and practices of computing and coding.

CHRIS STEPHENSON: I've had administrators actually say to me in all good intention, I know kids are learning computer science in my schools because there are computers in the schools. And that is just not true. I think that they just don't understand that, you know, having access to a computer isn't the same as learning computer science any more than, you know, having a Bunsen burner in the cupboard is the same as learning chemistry.

WESTERVELT: The guesstimate is that only five to 10 percent of schools teach computer science, and that's based largely on data on students who take the Advanced Placement or AP test in computer science annually. The real percentage may be lower. Nobody tracks the figures nationally. Some sobering stats from last year's AP data: In Mississippi, Montana and Wyoming, no girls took the exam. In 11 states, no black students took it. In eight states, no Hispanics took it.

In 17 states, fewer than 100 students took the computer science exam. Chris Stephenson.

STEPHENSON: It's crazy small. I mean it would be absurd if it weren't so scary; that's how terrifying it is.

WESTERVELT: So never mind the hardware-based digital divide; there's a growing digital information divide. Computer science education, it seems, is now privileged knowledge accessible mostly by affluent kids.

STEPHENSON: The people that, you know, are most likely to succeed have access to it and other kids do not, and we really need to look at those facts and figures and be horrified by them.

WESTERVELT: Stephenson says the Hour of Code, which has reached millions of students around the world, is a terrific start. But until more schools offer computer science, and for credit, she says, the knowledge gap will only widen. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.