Like most Americans, my family and I are consumers of technology. We use a variety of devices that help us learn, work, play and communicate. It’s hard to imagine a time before the internet and cell phones, but those of us who are over certain age occasionally feel it necessary to impress upon younger generations about What It Was Like In The Olden Days. Did you know that way back in, say, the 80’s we had to use a manual typewriter and correcting ribbon to produce essays, photograph and develop slides and put them in a carousel to give a presentation, and stand in the kitchen to talk on the phone because it was attached to the wall? My daughter wonders aloud if I also had walk miles in the snow to school (uphill both directions).
But one experience I did have in those early days of personal computers was the opportunity to play a little bit with coding. We had a Texas Instruments computer attached to an old black and white television that served as a monitor. My dad taught me a few rudimentary elements of BASIC, and I was able to create a “choose your own adventure” story for my little sister. It was fun – and empowering – to see the computer do what I told it to do.
Since then, there have been a few other times when I worked with computer codes. In graduate school I had to run statistical analyses on SAS. Later I helped customize new medical records software for a paperless veterinary practice. These days I help manage content for a variety of social media pages, but it is rare that I ever have to move beyond the What You See Is What You Get screen and delve into HTML. Even though I don’t comprehend most coding languages, I can appreciate the patterns and sometimes troubleshoot and fix small things. I also respect the power of coding, recognizing that the omission of a single character could mess up an entire program!
My kids are growing up in a different world than I did. They are technologically-savvy and take many of their computer tools for granted. But… they don’t write code, they poke at icons. They, like most of us, are computer consumers, not computer programmers. It was to their generation that President Obama was speaking when he urged “Don’t just play on your phone, program it” last December.
So it was with great interest that I read Tasneem Raja’s cover story in this month’s Mother Jones magazine: Is Coding the New Literacy? She begins the piece with an impressive story about how young coders from Code for America solved a problem Boston was having with fire hydrants buried under snow. However, while there is clearly a need for workers with computer coding skills, the number of students are graduating with degrees in computer science does not meet the need in this high-paying industry. She goes on to explore a variety of reasons for this, but Raja writes:
And then she ties computer literacy to the concept of computational thinking:
Researchers have been experimenting with new ways of teaching computer science, with intriguing results. For one thing, they’ve seen that leading with computational thinking instead of code itself, and helping students imagine how being computer savvy could help them in any career, boosts the number of girls and kids of color taking—and sticking with—computer science. Upending our notions of what it means to interface with computers could help democratize the biggest engine of wealth since the Industrial Revolution.
Computational thinking — that’s the key. Examples of computational thinking can be found in everyday and meaningful tasks that we can all relate to, and the article uses cooking a meal as a type of “light CT”.
After reading the article, I thought about my kids and the way they interact with technology. I have a 12 year old who has long been interested in engineering, electronics and generally How Stuff Works. His most recent experience with programming has been to program robots to complete missions as part of a FIRST Lego League Robotics team. This has been a great project-based learning experience for him, but even the FIRST robotics program uses software that teaches programming through a graphic interface rather than basic command line programming. So last night my son and I explored http://code.org/, which is a site that provides free computer science and coding curriculum for K-12 students, and is listed on the Oregon Coast Regional STEM Hub’s Resources page. We managed to program our way through a series of mazes during our first Hour of Code. It was fun, painless and engaging for both of us. After writing each secret messages to each other in binary code, I showed him the HTML view of a few websites. The view looks messy, but he could appreciate and decipher some of the commands. He appears to be eager to continue exploring the world of coding, and I admit I’m now curious to learn more as well.