Coding in Class: A Solution to the STEM Gap

October 25th, 2013 | Articles, Job Search | No Comments »


American coding literacy is woefully low. That’s no great secret. There is a noticeable disparity when American math and science education is compared with the rest of the developed world – the U.S. ranked 52nd in the World Economic Forum’s assessment of global of math and science education. Statistics like this aren’t in short supply and are another piece of the STEM shortage puzzle.

This STEM job gap is something that politicians, business leaders, and technical recruiters have debated with great fervor. Some suggest the STEM gap is a symptom of an impotent higher education system while others propose that American students begin to lag behind during the early stages of secondary or even primary education. Of those in the second camp, a growing number advocates that we teach our children to code as soon as possible.

Our Achilles Heel

The argument is that if we wait until college to encourage passion in computer science, we’re already too late. In fact, some argue that high school is too far along in the educational timeline to make much of a difference.

Compare the number of American students who took the AP Computer Science exam with that of the AP English exam. An abysmally small 1.4 percent of high school students took the CS exam compared to the 40 percent who took the English exam. Worse still, those percentages only account for the students who put pencil to paper, not those that passed with a 3 or higher.

An article by Selena Larson digs into the whys of student coding apathy, pointing primarily to how difficult it can be to attract and anchor down qualified and enthusiastic teachers. Most find the private sector to be far more lucrative. That deficiency in primary and secondary schools definitely takes its toll.

Edward Jiang, CEO and founder of Student RND, said to Larson that many students say, “I would have loved to learn more about technology, but my friends, teachers or parents didn’t know much about it.” In the same article, it is argued that many district curriculums have such a myopic focus on standardized test preparation that other equally important skills are often short changed. In its current form, the traditional public school system may not be the answer to the coding or STEM gap.

What’s Being Done

Beaver Day Country School, an independent college prep school out beyond Boston, is setting the standard for schools interested in adopting information technology and coding into their curriculum. At Beaver Day, an elementary command of coding is mandatory for students to graduate.

These middle school and high school students are introduced to coding principles in an immersive, interdisciplinary way that helps them to reiterate other subjects and engender advanced problem solving skills from an early age. Certainly, Beaver Day has the ability to pursue unorthodox methodology as an independent school with exorbitant tuition fees (the 2013-2014 academic year was $39,950) but their approach can definitely be a model for traditional public school programs.

Other programs are pushing for more of an unstructured approach. Sesame Workshop, the non-profit educational division of Sesame Street, is spearheading initiatives to make STEM education more accessible through hands-on games and interactive videos that encourage children to experiment and feed their drive to solve problems. Other programs, like Black Girls Code, are focused on empowered young women of color to make their mark on the digital space. There are even growing numbers of independent programs where socially conscious tech professionals can act as mentors and mold the passion of young minds.

What You Can Do

If programs like the one above interest you, there are hundreds of ways that you personally can make a dent in the current coding and STEM gap.

• Donate to local public schools through websites like DonorsChoose. You can find teachers in your area that are trying to make a difference with tech or other STEM projects and help them whittle away at the amount they would personally have to pay to make it happen.
• Talk to your employers about sponsoring an event like Code Day. These types of programs can bring students together with their likeminded peers (showing them it’s cool to code) and industry experts (providing them with the guidance of a successful mentor).
• Volunteer. If there’s a local program, your time can often do far more good than any lump sum of money. Coding programs can’t go anywhere without someone to teach them.

By James Walsh

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