Now kids are computing in kindergarten
Six-year-old Lauren Meek moves her finger over the laptop trackpad. She drags and drops a block of code to build a set of instructions. Then she clicks the "run" button. She watches as the character moves through a maze. She then pumps her fist in excitement.
"Yes! This is so easy," Meek says. She's a kindergartener at Marshall Elementary. It's located in Marysville. It's north of Seattle.
This fall, most elementary school students in the Marysville School District are getting 40-minute weekly computer science lessons. It is part of their core instruction. It is part of a growing effort nationwide. The goal is to expose more public school children to computer science. That includes students as early as kindergarten.
Backed by technology leaders, nonprofits and companies, schools in New York, San Francisco and other cities have committed to offering computer science to students. It's for all grade levels. Chicago says computer science will eventually become a high school requirement.
Supporters say it's not just about learning how to code. It's also learning how computers work. They say computer science teaches kids to think logically. And, it lets kids be creative. It exposes them to the technology that will drive their future.
"In the 21st century, computer science is just as foundational as biology, chemistry," said Hadi Partovi, founder and CEO of Code.org. It's a Seattle-based national nonprofit. It works to expand access to computer science and increase participation by women and minorities.
The group is also behind a campaign to get millions of students to participate in an "Hour of Code." It is held the second week of December.
Bringing computer science into the schools ensures that everyone has an opportunity to become digitally literate. That is according to Yasmin Kafai. She is a professor of learning sciences at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education.
"We're not talking about turning everybody into a computer programmer or computer scientist," said Kafai. "It's a basic literacy."
Learning computer science also opens the door to high-demand jobs. By 2020, 4.6 million of 9.2 million science, technology, engineering and math jobs will be in computing. This is according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Computer science doesn't enjoy the benefits of other disciplines. There are no agreed-upon standards or robust assessments to measure learning. So says Jeanne Century. She is director of Outlier Research & Evaluation at the University of Chicago's Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education.
But it's the same argument for science and math, she said. There are practical issues. Those issues include more jobs requiring computer science. "Just as important is the fact that computing is everywhere in our lives. It's pervasive all around us. We need to understand computing."
One of the challenges is finding enough well-prepared teachers. An initiative of the National Science Foundation is seeking to have 10,000 well-trained computer science teachers in thousands of high schools.
Currently, computer science is taught in about one out of four high schools nationwide. There are even fewer in lower middle and elementary school grades. And only 27 states allow a computer science course to be counted toward graduation requirements in math or science. This is according to Code.org.
But there's been a surge in interest in recent years. In 2015, nearly 49,000 students took the Advanced Placement exam in computer science. This was up 25 percent from the previous year.
"Colleges are saying, 'There's an incredible demand. We'd like to see more students become better prepared when they get here'," said Terry Redican, vice president of Advanced Placement program at The College Board.
A new AP computer science principles course debuts next fall. That exam is focused on real-world applications. It also is aimed at increasing representation among women and underrepresented minorities.
At Marshall Elementary, more than half the students are low-income. Principal Kelly Sheward embraces computer science. "It's access that we didn't previously have." And it ensures the kids will be as prepared as their peers for the digital future, she said.
During a recent lesson using Code.org curriculum, teacher Sheena York asks a class of fifth-graders to identify the pattern in the computer puzzle. Then they solve it using the fewest steps. She urges them to try different strategies. She tells them to test their work as they go along. And she wants them to ask each other for help.
"I'm figuring this out piece by piece to see if this works," said Isiah Gibbs. He is 10 years old. "That doesn't work. So I'll try something else."
In the lower grades, students may learn about algorithms. They may learn about a set of instructions. This might be the steps in a baking recipe. Older students may write programs that create a game or interactive story. Many lessons don't involve computers. Math and other concepts are integrated into the lesson, York said.
"It's almost as important as reading and math," said fifth-grade teacher Hank Palmer.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How can computing be made accessible to 6-year-olds?
Write your answers in the comments section below