Written by Susan Bloom
Microsoft founder Bill Gates got his first exposure at age 13. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg started when he was about 12. Twitter creator Jack Dorsey was 8 and Dropbox founder Drew Houston was just 5.
These gurus of tech were only kids when they began learning how to program a computer. None started by trying to solve complex algorithms, rather they played games or designed simple objects. In the process, they learned code.
"Code is how any technology works — from computers to phones, coffee pots, cars and electronics. Anything driven by a computer mechanism requires code," says Andrea Ballina, a technology teacher at Bradley Beach Elementary School.
And as with Spanish, French, German or Italian, a growing number of K-through-12 districts in New Jersey are including the "language" of technology in their curriculum. It's estimated that one in every 10 schools now offers classes in coding for students at all grade levels.
"Just like we use the principles of math or the words in world languages as building blocks for those studies, code is a form of communication," says Marie Blistan, vice president of the New Jersey Education Association.
"Coding is its own language, not like anything else. It's sort of like learning music and then applying it," says Ballina, who introduced coding to her fifth-grade class for the first time during the 2013-14 academic year.
"There are so many great games and exercises out there today that make learning code fun for kids, and they can see the results of their work right on the screen," she says. "I feel like this is the real meaning of and most effective way to teach logic — not in an abstract way, but rather making it happen right then."
Ballina's 25 fifth-graders attended her technology class once every six days for a 45-minute coding session, during which they learned how to create games and animation with user-friendly software programs such as Scratch and Tynker. "We designed a maze as a whole class," says Thomas Sexsmith, 11, who was particularly adept at computer science basics and often helped other classmates navigate coding assignments.
"It's a lot of trial and error, and you have to pay attention to what you're doing, but once you figure it out, it feels good. I liked the freedom in the class and how we could do projects our own way, and I learned not to give up on these things," he says, adding that he hopes to be an engineer when he gets older.
"I think all kids in school should take coding because it teaches you how to use computers and you can use that in the future," says 10-year-old Lleyke Dunnican, another of Ballina's students, who says she'd like to become a scientist. "If you want to be a technology person when you grow up, then you'll know the techniques."
Ballina says more than half of the students in her class already had a Scratch account and were working on projects at home before they started learning them in school.
"This subject really engages kids at every grade level and they gain confidence from experiencing simple success and helping each other," she says.
The movement to teach code in the classroom began building speed about a year ago, when twin brothers Ali and Hadi Partovi launched code.org. Investors and early advisers to numerous startups — including Facebook, Dropbox and Zappos — the brothers encouraged U.S. teachers to introduce students to a special "Hour of Code" on their website.
The event, held last December during Computer Science Education Week, helped to jump-start the push to expand computer science learning among young people. Less than a year later, nearly 40 million kids have tapped into the science of code.
"Five years ago, we had 53 students in our computer science classes and now we have 180," says Daryl Detrick, a computer science instructor at Warren Hills Regional High School in Washington, which offers five levels of computer science/coding classes and has one of the larger CS programs in the state.
"Additionally, up until recently, only 15 percent of the students in our CS classes were female, but now that's doubled to 30 percent," says Detrick, who is president of the Computer Science Teachers Association of Central New Jersey.
"Code.org was the key that opened the doors and got the ball rolling, and it's since expanded into a movement that really engages kids and gets them interested in and excited about computer science," he says.
Educators see coding becoming more necessary in today's classroom to prepare students for the careers of tomorrow.
"Jobs are different now than when we were growing up," says Pam Lockwood, a technology teacher at Belmar Elementary School. "We used to think about being a doctor or a teacher, but now kids say, ‘I can work for Google and make different apps.' So it's important for us to expose kids to whatever's trending out in the world."
According to code.org, the number of computing jobs is rising three times faster than the number of computer science graduates, and experts predict there will be 1 million unfulfilled computer science jobs in America by 2020.
"Job opportunities in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math are tremendous, and we'd be restricting kids from taking part in that trend if we didn't expose them to those skills now. That's where the opportunities are," Detrick says.
Ballina agrees. "The future jobs are in technology and coding, but there are still benefits to having those skills beyond just those specific fields," she says. "By understanding the basics of computer science, kids can grasp the behind-the-scenes aspects of how things work and how to fix them, as well as the logic of solving problems regardless of the field they pursue."
"Computational thinking is a life-skill and supports learning across the curriculum," says Richard Vespucci, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. "It builds students' abilities to analyze a problem and develop solutions."
Though more and more jobs will rely on a mastery of computer science and coding techniques, Detrick says, in a majority of states, computer science doesn't count toward high school math or science requirements necessary for graduation.
Thanks, in part, to the momentum created by code.org, he says, the state Assembly has passed a bill that would allow an Advanced Placement course in computer science to satisfy some mathematics or science credits required for high school graduation. The bill is under consideration by the Senate and, if approved by the Senate and signed into law by the governor, would take effect this month for ninth-grade students.
"Computer science has only counted as a general elective, not as an academic class like other math and science classes. It's great to see the national coding initiative expand into a movement to help make CS count," Detrick says.
"We want students to be innovative creators of technology, not just passive users," he adds. "Some creation might be in the form of video games, but it might also be in the form of medical devices and procedures that can save lives, or car designs that can revolutionize transportation.
"We want kids to think and to use these coding and computer science tools proactively," he says. "It's about exploring the world of computational thinking and solving tomorrow's problems with today's technology."
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