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Obama STEM initiative
President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016. Credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool

In his final State of the Union address this week, President Obama called for every student to gain the opportunity for “the hands-on computer science and math class classes that make them job-ready on day one.”

It’s in our national interest to ensure this gap in our education system is addressed and over the past month, the Obama administration has been quietly convening education and industry leaders to make recommendations and significant new commitments to computer science education in 2016.

Happily, with the recent passage of the STEM Education Act more emphasis will be placed on computer science as part of a comprehensive STEM education plan and this is a positive development.

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If you’re in the business of computing in any capacity you know how hard it is to find qualified people. There simply aren’t enough trained talent to fill the jobs available, and women and minorities are especially missing from this field. Teaching computer science to even our youngest students is critical and is a fundamental skill set of the 21st century. But we’re going to need some serious commitments and support from the public, private and professional sectors if we want to ensure success.

First, teachers need to be properly trained. This means ongoing and high quality professional development. Computing changes almost daily and it’s hard for even those of us in the business to keep up, but without a continual certification process, among other learning vehicles, educators will not have the knowledge they need to teach a coding curriculum. And to do this well, it is imperative that schools have the necessary funding for their faculty to take the courses they need.

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Second, we need a greater dialogue and partnership among the private sector, academia and schools. It may not take a village to raise a computer programmer but a collaborative effort among all those who have a vested interest in supporting STEM education is crucial if this is going to work. It’s also about America’s economic growth too. STEM fields are where the jobs are, but we are woefully behind preparing our students for these opportunities as compared to our global competitors.

Third, computer science education has to be thought of as being accessible to all students, especially girls and under-represented minorities, and as fundamental as learning the three “R’s.” But I would add a fourth element here: passion. Learning the basics about coding is important, but it is a passion for programming that creates the successful tech start-ups and/or corporate or academic career path. Inviting external IT professionals or computer science researchers of diverse backgrounds into the classroom can be a great way to help instill that passion into youngsters and get them excited about the career fields they can explore once they learn programming.

Computer science education has to be thought of as being accessible to all students, especially girls and under-represented minorities, and as fundamental as learning the three ‘R’s.’

Most important of all, however, is that learning coding is not necessarily about learning to code. At its core, coding is about the ability to reason and solve problems. The notion that a programmer spends hours a day staring into a screen and pounding away at a keyboard is more Hollywood than reality.

Programmers spend a good portion of their day talking to people, debating cause and effect, sharing ideas, breaking down complex problems and developing solutions. These are all marketable skills that employers want, along with time management and the ability to work with a team that might not always be in the same office or even in the same country. In addition, it is imperative that all students regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity should believe that a career in computing is as accessible to them as much as it is to anyone else, a choice that learning programming skills provide.

While the use of “STEM” is recent, the importance of a greater focus on these areas has been a topic of discussion among education reformers, including those in the private sector, for more than 20 years. Many of the world’s emerging economies, especially those in AIPAC countries, have invested heavily in STEM education in the past couple of decades. Sustainable economic development of healthy, vibrant societies can only be achieved by cultivating a STEM-literate population, and this in turn helps all nations, including the United States.

There’s a final, personal reason I was so pleased that the importance of computer science education and learning coding skills was featured in the president’s State of the Union address. When I was 12, my dad bought me a Commodore 64. It was invaluable to my music composing efforts and got me hooked on programming. I’m also an unabashed gamer; I love figuring out how games are developed and work. I’ve built my career on this passion for coding.

Learning coding is a skill that all students need to have if they’re going to be employable for the future.

Eric Wise is the founder and chief academic officer of The Software Guild.

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