November 22, 2015

GUEST ROOM | Building the Next Generation of Programmers

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By NIKOLAI RAKHILIN

Think about how much time we spend using technology. Most of us start our day by opening our eyes, reaching for our phone and browsing through news, social media and email.  Where do we get all this technology? We know Apple was started by Steve Jobs and Microsoft’s founder is Bill Gates — but who developed the software, apps and websites that we use on a daily basis?

Programmers did.

While the majority of college graduates currently struggle to find employment, programming jobs continue to grow at a rate that is twice the national average. They are higher paying than most jobs for new graduates, and there are over 1.4 million available positions today. Nevertheless, there are only 400,000 computer science students nationwide.

The question immediately arises: Why are so few students graduating with computer sciences degrees if this is such a rapidly expanding job market?  And what can we do to bridge this gap?

To understand the problem at hand we must examine our current computer science education, or lack thereof. Only one in 10 U.S. schools teach computer science, with the majority of those 10 percent being exclusively at the high school level. With the small number of computer science college graduates, it is clear that this brief exposure in high school is too little, too late.

Computer science is not only a mastery of a new language, but also of a new way of thinking. For years it has been known that early exposure to a foreign language aids fluency, and coding is no different.

Computer programming is the 21st century’s literacy, and algorithmic thinking a modern form of grammar.  Think about the consequences of neglecting to teach a student to read until the age of 15. This is what we are doing to our current generation. We are ignoring the fact that exposure to coding needs to start early.

Children need a strong introduction to the new language of coding, just as much as they need exposure to traditional subjects such as math and English.

Schools need to equip students with knowledge and encourage computer science education, or we are failing to prepare our children.

Parents need to seek out opportunities and websites for exposure to coding and algorithmic thinking, including code.org and scratch.mit.edu.

Freely-available online resources can supplement the basics of coding until our school systems catch on. However, there appears to be a lack of social motivation, as most parents are hesitant to let their children learn new concepts on the web unsupervised, and most teachers are ill-equipped to teach the theories themselves.

As such, university students across the United States need to act as guides to help build a solid foundation in schools.

Such programs are beginning to arise, with Cornell students helping to lead the charge. Most recently, Code-4-Kids at Belle Sherman Elementary School in Ithaca  initiated an early elementary school coding program where Cornell University students volunteer their time to work with children and walk them through basic algorithmic thinking puzzles and computational coding games. Throughout the spring semester, lessons from code.org have been adapted to create curricula for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. It has become one of the most popular after-school programs, with demand exceeding class capacity by far. The program is currently seeking additional volunteers for next semester, to expand class size and provide a more personalized teaching experience for the kids.

While these programs do not guarantee that each child will be the next Mark Zuckerberg, they will ensure that our children are familiar and comfortable with the digital world around them, and have a solid foundation if they do decide to pursue a computer science career down the road.

We must come to understand as a community and as a nation that knowledge of computer programming should not only be reserved for a brilliant few members of society or the future Gates, Jobs and Zuckerbergs of our time. Coding should be taught to everyone, and it can be with the help of Cornell student volunteers.

Programming is the wave of the future. It is where innovation and creativity can develop tools to improve our lives, and where education in this country needs to improve the most. Now it is up to us to decide if we will be submerged by it, or rise above and ride it to the next big innovation.

If you are interested in volunteering for the club, please email us at code-4-kids-L@cornell.edu or visit the website http://gr.orgsync.rso.cornell.edu/org/code4kids/ for more information.

Nikolai Rakhilin is a student at Cornell. Guest Room appears periodically this semester. Comments may be sent to associate-editor@cornellsun.com.

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