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Melissa Loftis is a third-grade coteacher at Albemarle Road Elementary in Charlotte, NC. Her class of 40 includes many English language learners, some from Salvador and Mexico, others refugees from Nepal, Burma and Congo resettled in the area by Catholic charities.
This week her students are among ten million (and counting) around the country participating in the Hour of Code, an initiative by the nonprofit Code.org of unprecedented size and scope designed to promote the teaching of computer science in public schools.
Wait, why don’t schools teach computer science?
Despite a steady drumbeat about the STEM disciplines and the job opportunities available in the field, between 1990 and 2009, the percentage of high school students who earned credits in computer science actually fell, to less than one in five. It was the only technical subject to see a decline. Very few classroom teachers are trained in computer science. Some schools don’t have sufficient connectivity or devices. And the field is so new, there’s a lack of up-to-date curricula, even at the college level. When it comes to elementary school, forget it: the big learning publishers don’t offer textbooks or teachers’ guides in coding.
Code.org, founded by twin brothers Ali and Hadi Partovi, have mobilized a huge amount of star power behind the push, with a coalition of over 100 organizations. ” Our biggest and most important challenge is that computer programming is not cool,” Ali Partovi told me. “We’re going to make it cool.” Free classes are being held in every Apple retail stores in America. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates recorded video tutorials for the online, game-like curriculum. Politicians, celebs and athletes from President Obama on down have been putting up videos and tweeting encouragement. Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Apple, MSN, Bing, and Disney have all featured the Hour of Code on their home pages. “Our goal for next year is to have 100 schools in US add CS as a class, the year after that, a thousand. And by the end of the decade we want Computer Science taught in every school in America,” Partovi.
For Loftis, however, the appeal of participation is a lot simpler. Right now, her class of 40 shares five computers and four tablets, which she got by appealing through the web site DonorsChoose. In addition, the entire school of 1300 has a computer lab with only 30 machines. But she and her school’s technology teacher won a $10,000 grant by pledging to have every kid participate in the Hour of Code, money they’ve used to order 30 low-cost Chromebooks. That in itself, she says, will make a difference in the way she teaches for the rest of the year. “We’ve been trying to drive more project-based learning,” she says. “Things that involve speaking, listening and doing research.”
The first Hour of Code is definitely engaging. The first series of 20 lessons took me 25 minutes to complete. Based on characters from well known video games Angry Birds and Zombies vs. Plants, it simplifies the coding process from a series of endless runline commands into lego like “blocks,” written in plain English, that snap into place. The first hour gently introduces the idea of if/then commands, loops, functions, and other basic computer logic which you use to move the game characters through a series of mazes towards their goals.
Loftis says her students’ enthusiasm level is high, and the curriculum is surprisingly open-ended in its applications. “They’ve been in our country some of them a month–that’s amazing. It’s been eye opening for us as teachers, that they can build their reading, listening, speaking, and math skills and technology all at the same time. Seeing them engaged with more than just the social media aspect of technology–the math and the code and really thinking how to create and manipulate–it’s exciting. And I feel like it’s rigorous for them. They’re having to do something they’ve never really done, but they enjoy it.”
Not everyone agrees that computer science belongs front and center on our nation’s educational agenda. There’s no mention of it in the new Common Core State Standards, for example. Some would call coding a distraction from our mediocre basic math and literacy skills, which just got called out on the international PISA test. Others argue that calls for universal code literacy betray a self-servingly narrow, vocational concept of the purpose of school. After all, having members of the Silicon Valley elite push for programming to be taught in every school is not too different from having members of the fossil fuel industry plump for universal teaching of geology.
Nevertheless, Code.org is getting a rapturous political reception. In six months of lobbying they’ve managed to help get laws signed in three states updating educational standards to recognize computer science. This week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a partnership with the organization to introduce computer science as a core subject in Chicago Public Schools, and the New York City schools chancellor announced a $1 million investment in teacher training to bring CS into more schools there as well.
On the ground, there’s reason to hope that this push will bring broader benefits to the classrooms headed by teachers like Loftis. “This is the 21st century. They need to know technology. They need to know how to communicate, but also create and collaborate. [Programming] might not interest everyone, but I really think it’s good for students and even adults to explore and see what goes into making and building computer code.”