Experts say kids should be coding — here’s how to get them started
Unlike our youths spent laboriously learning to pluck letters on a desktop keyboard and having very little technological knowledge outside of changing our AIM away message, the children of today are citizens of the digital age. Innovation is happening at an exponential rate, making it more important than ever to be able to navigate the connected world.
So while it makes sense that previous generations weren't taught coding at an early age, the case for teaching today's kids to code proves strong. Not only does it train children to think analytically, but its application in everyday life will only grow in relevance as technology continues to evolve.
Jessica Mah, the founder and CEO of inDinero, believes that coding should already be incorporated into children's education. "Elementary schools should require kids to code; it should simply be part of the curriculum," she said. "Technology is the future, and coding is such a critical component and an essential skill. I'd say that we're already 20 years behind."
And Mah knows a thing or two about coding for kids — she was only 11 years old when she learned to code and launched her first web-based business.
If you ask John Hilliar, a software developer for Dell EMC and former programming instructor at Northeastern University when he thinks kids should start coding, the answer is right around the age Mah first learned: middle school. In fact, Hilliar is currently gearing up to teach his own 12-year-old daughter how to program in C over the upcoming holiday break.
Why do kids need to learn to code?
"Coding teaches how to break a problem into small problems and logical flow, but more importantly, it forces the programmer to communicate with the user person-to-person. Learning a programming language teaches you the mechanics of instructing a computer how to do a certain task, but solving the user's problem in a way they find useful is a skill that's applicable to all jobs," Hilliar told us.
While Hilliar believes middle school is an ideal age to start introducing programming language like C, C++ or Java, he also cautions that coding — like most aspects of children's education — isn't necessarily a one-size-fits-all endeavor, so to speak.
"Keep in mind everyone has different aptitudes," he explained. "I've seen students who were straight-A students fail miserably to grasp programming in a college level graduate course, whereas the person right beside them excelled."
How do we start teaching our kids to code?
Hilliar offers a few suggestions, saying, "A language like Scratch can teach kids at a very young age (perhaps second grade) the basics of looping and the steps of a process. Plus, it's more fun and graphical than other languages such as C, C++ or Java."
With his own daughter, Hilliar plans to introduce coding in layers — a process the two have already begun. "I'll start with C and build lesson-by-lesson on the components of the language. Last year we tinkered with an Arduino kit together; I'd sit down with her at night and learn some new material, and then I'd give her an experiment to do the next day. For C programming, I'll take the same approach."
Another way to foster a love of coding in kids is to reinforce it through fun. Since kids get bored easily, making coding a part of play makes learning to code more engaging and therefore enjoyable. High-tech "toys" such as the Dash & Dot from Wonder Workshop are a prime example.
Designated as Melinda and Bill Gates' favorite STEM gift for kids, Dash & Dot are actual robots that teach kids to code through play. The robots work with smartphone and tablet apps so children can tackle projects, challenges and puzzles and let their imaginations go wild with freeform play.
Elementary schools all over the globe are starting to come around to Mah and Hilliar's perspective on early coding, as over 8,500 schools have already adopted Dash & Dot into their computer science curriculum.
Still, the majority of schools in the U.S. have yet to implement coding for kids as part of the curriculum, suggesting Mah hit the nail on the head when she said our schools are behind the curve where coding education is concerned.
As DataScience@SMU — the online Master of Science in data science from Southern Methodist University — pointed out, "The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that by 2020 there will be more than 1.4 million computing-related job openings. The annual mean salary of a software developer in the United States is $102,050, while the annual mean salary for all jobs is $47,230. Yet only 1 in 10 U.S. schools teach children to code and less than 1 percent of girls think computer science is part of their future."
In exploring the state of computer science and education for K through 12 students in the U.S. and abroad, DataScience@SMU found that coding is only mandatory as part of elementary or secondary curricula in four countries (Britain, Estonia, France and Vietnam), optionally offered through nonprofits and foundations in another four (Canada, Colombia, Germany and India) and under consideration in three (Finland, Italy and Singapore).
In addition to only being taught in 1 in 10 schools, coding is often not fully taken advantage of here in the States — according to DataScience@SMU, only 30,000 of 21 million U.S. students actually took the AP computer science exam in 2013.
When asked by the Computer Science Teachers Association what their biggest hurdle in implementing coding in the curriculum was, 1,246 teachers cited lack of support or interest by school staff and lack of student interest as the primary obstacles.
But with an estimated 1.4 million U.S. jobs in computer science-related fields expected to be created by 2020 — and only 30 percent of those predicted to be filled by qualified U.S. citizens — it stands to reason it's about time we all got more interested in coding for kids.
This post was sponsored by Wonder Workshop.