Decoding the Need for Coding
I am illiterate. There, I said it. And so, very likely, are you. The sooner we face that fact, the sooner we can do something about it.
What if I told you that today, right now and in the wealthiest nation on Earth, nearly 100 percent of the population is illiterate? You and I — and nearly everyone else — lack basic literacy skills necessary in the modern economy we’ve built.
And what if you were to discover that your children and our future likely will be no better off if we don’t do something about this critical problem very soon?
In fact, what if you knew that your tax dollars paid for schools where 99 percent of students are actually denied basic literacy skills, and only the most elite students are given access to classes where literacy skills are taught?
These statistics are not science fiction. They’re compiled by national nonprofit Code.org, and they capture a very real and very disturbing snapshot of the prevalence — or lack thereof — of computer science courses in the nation’s public schools.
Obviously, the literacy I write about is digital literacy.
Less obvious is that digital literacy is not already prevalent in our public schools. Digital literacy — in spite of what we’re told at our kids’ back-to-school nights — is not the ability to use a mouse or to design a PowerPoint presentation or manipulate an Excel spreadsheet.
All of theses skills are computer-relevant, but they’re not STEM literacy.
Computer Science is the literacy of STEM, the literacy of the future — of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It’s today’s modern chemistry lab. It is the aeronautical engineer’s wind tunnel. It’s how international banks let you keep track of your cash. It’s how your car works. It’s how your grandma’s pacemaker works. It’s how your phone works.
Nearly 70 percent of all STEM jobs are computer-science jobs. And the other 30 percent of STEM jobs require a basic working knowledge of computer science.
Teaching science or engineering in high school — or even in college — without also providing a firm foundation in computer science is a bit like teaching high school-level literature courses or journalism classes or history classes without the benefit of learning to read and write.
If it comes as a shock to you that this critical foundational skill is absent from most schools, it seems to surprise most everyone.
Even those closest to the truth.
For the past 20 years, I’ve been an education writer and my wife has taught high school computer science. In spite of our proximity, the extent of this problem became evident to us only about two years ago.
That’s when I first met James Kearney II. For years, my wife tried to convince me to write about FIRST Robotics, its annual high school robotics competition at VCU, and specifically about the perennial underdog team from Richmond’s Thomas Jefferson High School.
The team was every cliche you’d imagine; a ragtag bunch building their robot out of metaphorical sticks and twine, and holding their own against teams with sponsorships from NASA or Northrop Grumman.
And at the heart of the team was Kearney. Kearney was, so far as my research and reporting was able to discern, just about the only kid in Richmond Public Schools who knew how to write code to program a computer — or in this case, a robot. His skill was the secret ingredient to the TJ robotics team.
Most other teams at the competition relied equally on NASA or Northrop Grumman or some other sponsoring adult to provide at least strong guidance on programming the robot they’d built. James, the self-taught novice, was (to exaggerate just a bit) competing and winning against adults who’d landed things on Mars.
Turns out, not surprisingly, Richmond Public Schools offers no course in computer programming other than what might be available to a few through dual enrollment at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. Most students don’t know to seek it out.
So I started calling around to the other school districts in the area. Amazingly, as much as Richmond’s schools bear the brunt of local criticism for their quality of education, other regional schools weren’t much better.
Chesterfield? A few high schools offered AP computer science classes — and fewer today than then. Henrico was an even more lamentable example than Richmond.
More than 10 years ago, as a young reporter for this newspaper, I covered the launch of Henrico’s laptop initiative, a $20-plus-million program that today means nearly every middle- and high-school student in the district has a laptop computer for their personal use.
More than 20,000 laptop computers. Henrico Public Schools today is technology rich, but a veritable desert for computer-science literacy. In 2013, a fair estimate is that fewer than 50 students graduated from Henrico County Public Schools having ever taken a computer science course.
Remember that Code.org statistic about digital literacy? The Richmond region serves as a near-perfect illustration of our nation’s digital literacy crisis.
The single local bright spot is Hanover County, where my wife taught. It was easy for her to miss the problem because Hanover is the exception to the rule.
She taught five separate courses in three different programming languages, with an intro course, intermediate classes and a capstone AP course that counted toward college credit, and that helped many of her students over the years secure placement at the best universities in the country. Hers mirrored programs at the other three Hanover high schools.
But even there, many students who should take the course never did. Computer science, because its use and purpose is so poorly understood by everyone from parents to policymakers, doesn’t really have a home as as a part of the path to a high school diploma. Schools are focused on graduation and Standards of Learning tests. Computer Science is required for neither.
Most schools put computer science — when they offer it — in the career and technical education department alongside typing, desktop publishing, lawnmower repair and agriculture classes.
Something needed doing, and the Dovi family decided that if educators and politicians weren’t going to to do anything about it, we would.
We began planning for what would soon become CodeVA, an advocacy and outreach organization that quickly — through my wife’s prominence in her field that’s made her both a Google Education Fellow and a member of Code.org’s education advisory board — expanded to become Code.org’s first partner organization.
Our first mission — my mission — was to raise the profile of Computer Science. So we approached our friend, Del. Manoli Loupassi, and asked him to patron a bill in the 2014 Virginia General Assembly session. The bill was simple: Allow true computer science classes to count as science credits toward graduation.
We thought it was simple. But the bill proved controversial with some education organizations. Computer science, they argued, is not by itself a science. It’s a point of debate and contention that’s best left to experts like the National Science Foundation, the National Science Teachers Association and the National Math Science Initiative, all of which are pushing to see computer science courses taught in public school as science credits. (The bill passed and was signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe in April.)
But it’s not best left to chance. Right now, the United States is woefully behind in computer science education — in 21st century literacy. In fact, we are right now at risk of trading places with nations of the world that a decade ago ranked far behind us for both traditional literacy standards and digital literacy standards.
Countries like India and China have integrated computer science into all levels of education, from kindergarten to graduation. So has England. And Australia. Hungary has become a hotbed of techheads. Brazil, too. What of Virginia? What of the state that then-Gov. Mark Warner called the Digital Dominion just a decade or so ago?
Remarkably, the Old Dominion truly is poised to become the Digital Dominion — assuming we can come together as leaders, parents, educators and corporate citizens. Assuming the Virginia Board of Education properly enacts the law the legislature passed, school districts will be primed to offer classes. And CodeVA aims, through its ongoing teacher-training effort, to address the current void of teachers qualified to teach these courses.
CodeVA this year added 28 new computer science teachers to Virginia classrooms. Richmond Public Schools, where James had to teach himself to code just a few years ago, now has nine computer science teachers trained by CodeVA. And we aim to add 150 or more additional computer science teachers to Virginia high school classrooms over the next two years. We want to — can do — more, with the help and support of you. Together, we should seek to inject our state’s Standards of Learning objectives with principles of computer science and computational thinking.
Take, for instance, the hard pre-algebra lesson of X-Y coordinates. Seriously, take it. Away. Most of us struggled in school to grasp this abstract concept that on its face has no real-world connection.
Without computer science, teachers teach X-Y coordinates by lecture and on graph paper. Maybe some make it fun by equating it to the board game, Battleship!
Most of us might play Battleship! once a year, when the power goes out. But what if kids learned the X-Y coordinates lesson in fully electrified mode? In their very real world, this otherwise abstract concept becomes something every child sees and interacts with, every day, on every screen, every smartphone or tablet device on which they play Minecraft or Angry Birds or whatever the latest game craze may be.
We’re not asking to change the SOLs. The bones are already there. Virginia, as I said, is poised, and is in many ways in better shape than other states, to foster STEM literacy. There are great ways to infuse our SOLs — from elementary school on up — with engaging lessons that support computer-science learning.
By designing a lesson around simple computer-science activities — in the case of X-Y coordinates, that might involve Virginia second-graders designing their own simple computer games that move characters of their own design around a computer screen — kids are newly engaged. They learn not only the practical, but the abstract.
Doesn’t sound possible? Sounds like magic? CodeVA did magic this past summer with well over 100 kids whose parents enrolled them in our summer camps.
To those of us who are digitally illiterate, it may sound like magic. But why would we want to leave our children in the dark, too? Computer science teaches that the magic we take for granted is not magic at all.
Computer science grants kids the magic to become doers and not just users. They become producers and not just consumers in the 21st century economy.
They become literate.
When companies look to the Richmond region to locate, relocate or expand, they don’t consider what they offer the region, but what the region offers them — and their employees.
Chris Dovi and his wife, Rebecca Dovi, are co-founders of CodeVA, a nonprofit computer science education advocacy organization based in Richmond. He worked as a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2000 to 2004. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. [An earlier version of this article appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch and is used here with permission from Chris and Rebecca Dovi.]