Hour of Need

Reshaping our education system around the future.

GUEST COLUMN | by Vandana Sikka

CREDIT Hour of Code girlDuring last week’s Computer Science Education Week (CSEdWeek), 350 organizations and 100,000 educators worldwide came together to promote computer science education by spending at least one hour teaching students how to code. This Hour of Code, started by Code.org, reached more than 100 million hours at the beginning of 2015 — making it the largest education campaign in history.

But the successes of Computer Science Education Week and The Hour of Code are just the start. Students, particularly those in underserved communities, aren’t getting the year-round education in computer science that they need to enter a competitive job market — especially one with a growing emphasis on computing. We need to make computer science a part of the core curriculum across the United States in order to prepare our children for their future.

We have to ask ourselves, are we helping our children acquire the skills they will need to thrive in tomorrow’s digital world?

That future is coming soon. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly half of the 9.2 million science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs will be in computing by 2020. Other industries, from agriculture to retail, will depend on programming, coding and automation as well. In fact, according to a Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce Report, 67 percent of all programming jobs take place outside of the technology industry. The need to read and write code will not go away — it will only grow in importance over time.

Here’s the problem: there are about 14,000 school districts in America. Fewer than half of them count computer science towards graduation requirements. That’s only one in four schools providing students a structured education in computer science.

So how can we change this? There are a few things we can do to improve the future of coding in education right now.

The first is to inspire children who are interested in the skill through community- and business-led initiatives. We must bring a sense of learning through doing, foster creative problem solving and instill a spirit of making so children become inspired to be the creators and not just the consumers of technology. This is why we launched the Infy Maker Awards, offering fifty $10,000 Makerspace grants to schools, libraries and other community organizations, in addition to individual cash prizes.

The second is to advocate for policy changes creatively – it needs to be a fundamental shift, not an increment of the past. Finally, we need community members to volunteer. Expertise, networks and resources are always necessary — especially to build an infrastructure capable of educating and inspiring children to code wherever in the US they live.

Perhaps the most important step, however, is getting children interested in coding from a young age. According to a 2007 report by College Board, women who try Advanced Placement computer courses in high school are ten times more likely to major in it in college, while African Americans and Hispanic students are seven times more likely. These numbers need to be increased.

For these students, no matter what profession or what field they chose to pursue, computing will be at the heart of every profession, and these skills will make them more employable. The retail industry, the arts, manufacturing and construction, all require an ever-increasing degree of computer competency. We have to ask ourselves, are we helping our children acquire the skills they will need to thrive in tomorrow’s digital world? Knowing how to read and write code will be critical to giving students the best employment opportunities. In an attempt to bridge this digital divide, Infosys Foundation USA is committed to making high-quality CS and coding education widely and easily accessible to all, in particular to the underrepresented students.

There are, of course, going to be obstacles to our goal — but not all of them are a matter of funding or education policy. Stereotypes around coding discourage many children and teenagers from exploring computer science at an early age. Year-round support systems at home and within communities are missing. Companies and volunteers will need to embrace mentorships, as well as sponsorships, as a method of community participation. Perhaps most importantly, we need to overcome technology’s diversity problem.

Coding is a fundamental skill that will permeate and transform every discipline and every industry imaginable – agriculture, retail, sports, manufacturing and others. Every young person should be provided the opportunity to both learn computer science and understand how the digital world affects them. Only by teaching our children how to code can we prepare them for the future.

Vandana Sikka is chairperson at Infosys Foundation USA, a foundation teaming up with Code.orgGirls Who Code and other national organizations to create programs aimed at exposing more students to Computer Science and introducing new Computer Science curriculum into our schools.

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