Lord of the Files — Children Stranded in a Land without Code

Caught in a mosh.

Stanford computer science student Jessica Sagen discusses her resume with a recruiter.

“You realize I’m sending you into that mosh pit by yourself, right?” my editor asked while we waited outside a giant white tent.

I thought mosh pit was a little severe. The tent was more reminiscent of an overcrowded polka tent I had once worked in during an Oktoberfest celebration. But instead of lederhosen, oom pah pah and beer, this one housed the Stanford Computer Forum Career Fair. As I had just learned, it also held my first solo assignment as a science writing intern at the Stanford School of Engineering: wade through the clammy herd of computer scientists and engineers to photograph them clamoring for jobs.

While there was clamor aplenty, I was surprised to find it wasn’t the musky students who were behind it. It was the nearly 80 Silicon Valley tech companies who were throwing out job offers like so many logo-emblazoned Frisbees.

As it turned out, programmers are super hot right now. As someone who enjoys making money, I felt this was a pertinent observation, especially for the single largest unemployed demographic in the country: children.

“We’re waiting too long to start teaching kids that these jobs are available to them,” Nathan Darnell later told me. Darnell teaches a technology class at a middle school in Lafayette, California.

He’s deviating from the school’s traditional curriculum of preaching the importance of typing speed and PowerPoint literacy. Instead, he is teaching his students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades to code for the first time in the school’s history using a website called Codecademy. The website provides free interactive tutorials for a variety of languages, including HTML, JavaScript and Python.

“About 25% of the students don’t get it at all; 50% don’t necessarily understand the coding, but see that they’re doing something; and another 25% are totally into it,” said Darnell. “Honestly, I think we could start them earlier and get better percentages.”

And the 50% who are just getting visual feedback should not be overlooked, said Jack Poulson. Poulson, currently a postdoc at Stanford, will be joining the School of Computational Science and Engineering at Georgia Tech as an assistant professor this fall.

Poulson told me about a group of MIT researchers who created a programming language called Logo. They kept Logo simple by design. They wanted it to be a language that students felt comfortable learning, like training wheels for programmers. And this was in 1967.

Logo is still around, largely because of its simplicity. In the basic Logo program, students move a little arrow around the screen by typing short commands.

“I think something as simple as that, just getting a student to see feedback from doing something that they typed, it gets them thinking,” said Poulson. “Questions naturally build on top of themselves. Whether they want to or not, they start learning.”

Hello world.

Mr. Darnell drops some sick coding instruction on his students using Codecademy. Photo courtesy Natalie Deininger.

Yet few kids ever get that far. Darnell’s school is one of a small number in California introduce students to programming before high school or college. A KQED blog post identified two other schools in Silicon Valley that have launched coding programs. Certainly there are more that I don’t know about, but the majority of the other 7,000 grade and middle schools in the state do not plan on teaching coding.

Why? Because they don’t need to. The state’s technology education standards are low and outdated.

The California State Board of Education have adopted standards for English, math, social studies and even phys ed. These standards outline, grade-by-grade, what students are expected to understand in each subject. Explicit tech benchmarks for students do exist, but they’re lumped in with what are called library standards.

Library standards tell teachers that their students should be able to safely and responsibly use a library’s resources for research. Computers are absolutely among those resources, but, framed in this context, they’re little more than electronic encyclopedias. First-graders should be able to “demonstrate correct procedures to turn the computer on and off.” Sixth-graders must “identify types of programs that can damage a computer.” Important skills for sure, but not likely to wow anyone who hasn’t just emerged from a time machine or coma.

State schools cannot overhaul lax educational standards overnight, but the good news is that tech entrepreneurs are calling attention to the problem. The recently launched Code.org, backed by names like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft’s Bill Gates, is pushing for programming classes in every school. Google has even stuck a few of its billions upon billions of fingers into K-12 education, offering prepackaged computational thinking lesson plans for teachers (but, judging from the forums, it doesn’t look like these plans are getting a whole lot of play in the classroom this year).

These and other outreach programs around the globe are working to change the way students perceive technology.  To echo Kimberly Bryant of Black Girls CODE, I don’t think it will be anything short of revolutionary if they succeed. Computers aren’t just fancy multimedia boxes. They are tools people can use to leave their imprint on society, whether through a new game, a social network or maybe a complete roadmap of the human brain.

As I learned in that muggy career fair tent, programming skills are incredibly valuable. Watching the students confidently interact with company reps — one self-identified hacker flatout interviewed a recruiter — convinced me that programming allows kids to control their own worlds. I mean that in the grandiose, Whitney Houston sense where starting them now improves their chances of having prominent roles in an expansive and highly lucrative field. But I also mean it in a smaller, more immediate sense. They learn to arrange commands in a logical flow to make something work. There’s benefit in that beyond coding itself.

“You get used to turning ideas into something you can execute,” Poulson told me.

Public schools already have access to the resources they need to show students they can write real programs right now. With a little help and encouragement, many more kids could grow up to snag ridiculously good jobs. Maybe, by then, companies will have figured out how to make the tents less stuffy. Some beer and lederhosen wouldn’t hurt.

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One Response to Lord of the Files — Children Stranded in a Land without Code

  1. Susette Hart 30 October, 2013 at 8:17 pm #

    Interesting, informative, educational and exciting! You have hit the mark for the industry that I am currently employed with that is seeking qualified IT programming individuals constantly and too frequently we are unable to find them. In the land of opportunity this opportunity MUST be made available to more students at a much younger age, providing them with additional options to consider. Programming is not for everyone but you won’t know until you try it and when you do, you just might like it. Your article provides content and action steps that make it more than just a nice read! The lens you are looking through along with your delivery, brings the information within reach of all who are interested. Way to go! Keep it up!

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