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Teaching Kids to Code

Posted on the 27 February 2013 by Sandislin @ed_republc, a wonderful Seattle-based non-profit, released a slick new marketing video today with an impressive roster of celebrity endorsements - Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Drew Houston, and, to name a few. I am excited by their mission to create more talented coders - it helps America stay competitive, increases innovation, AND reduces unemployment all at once! There’s a real need in the marketplace when businesses are demanding computer science education in our elementary schools. I’ve long been interested in STEM education (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), particularly since I had the privilege to attend a public high school focused on science & technology. But there are a few factors that make increasing STEM very tricky:
  1. Chicken and egg problem: With relatively few engineers in the workforce (and even those tend to be concentrated in urban areas), many young people are never exposed to technology careers. We are biased towards things that we know - so naturally kids’ role models become doctors, lawyers, teachers, farmers, athletes, etc. 
  2. The gender gap: Women make up only ~10% of engineers but ~50% of the population - that’s a huge workforce that’s being underutilized. Why? My guess is it’s the popular perception that engineers are a bunch of nerdy guys coding all night on their laptops while eating ramen noodles. From an early age, girls are more likely than boys to value social cohesion and social interactions (yep, I’m generalizing here but there is research that backs this up). I’d also guess that there are subtle cues in the classroom that discourage girls from STEM (e.g. math problems have clear right and wrong answers which lead to more competitive behavior and the risk of being publicly ‘wrong’).
  3. STEM also requires creativity: Math and engineering are structured and detailed disciplines that require a methodical way of thinking. But the appeal of STEM careers is the ability to build, create, and innovate. I think it’s tough to find kids that are attracted by the creative possibilities of technology AND can stomach years of fundamental STEM classes.
In addition to, two ideas really excite me for increasing our number of coders and STEM graduates. First, online learning options are finally giving students quality alternatives outside of the traditional school and university format. Ed Republic is one way where students can figure out where to learn to code. Second, what about promoting design to kids? Design may have broader appeal than coding, and naturally leads to front-end development and beyond (just like architecture and civil engineering are closely related). I’d love to see kids creating user flows and wireframes in art class, then bringing them to life in the computer lab.

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