Student Achievement Opinion

President Obama Is Serious About Coding for Everyone, We Should Be too

By Starr Sackstein — March 13, 2016 4 min read
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Guest post by Vikas Gupta, Co-Founder and CEO of Wonder Workshop

President Obama’s $4 billion “Computer Science for All” plan has attracted its fair share of discussion since its introduction in January. Some of it has been critical, including a recent op-ed here at Education Week.

There is no shortage of “true believers” (as The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss calls us) in opportunity and equality in coding education. But there are many education veterans who recognize the challenges of such an initiative and have added their concerns to the national discussion.

While those critiques are valuable to the serious (and inevitable) execution of such an ambitious plan, several elephants still remain in the room.

In oft-referenced Bureau of Labor Statistics data, economic projections call for one million more STEM professionals than we are currently producing over the next decade if the U.S. is to maintain its innovation in these fields. Furthermore, that same data shows that there are some 600,000 STEM jobs that remain unfilled right now for lack of qualified candidates. That’s roughly the population of Las Vegas, by the way.

That same data also points to a surplus in workers without jobs in some STEM fields, and this is often cited as a key point in the argument that there is no STEM crisis at all.

The key difference between surplus and shortfall data is that vacancy is an issue faced by the trade industry - machinist, technicians, etc. are in short supply. Meanwhile, the surplus argument is focused on advanced careers in fields like biotechnology or chemical engineering, most of which require a Ph.D.

The purpose of the president’s “Computer Science for All” initiative is not to flood the market with more unemployed Ph.D graduates, but to democratize what he (and many “true believers”) see as a fundamental skill that will continue to influence all fields.

Some criticize the initiative as the latest example in “boutique reform,” i.e., the fast adoption of a novel trend in education that fails to maintain over time. I would argue that one of the key differentiators to the call for coding in every classroom is that we are quickly finding ourselves in a society that is no longer split between STEM jobs and non-STEM jobs.

Because all jobs are becoming STEM jobs.

From Jane Margolis and Yasmin Kafai, fellow “true believers": “Just as public education is crucial for promoting reading and writing, it is equally important for introducing students to the fundamental concepts of computer science. Computer science drives innovation across all fields, from the sciences to the arts - across all careers, from medical assistants to auto mechanics. Students who have this knowledge have a jump-start in access to these careers, and they have insight into the nature of innovation that is changing how we communicate, learn, recreate, and conduct democracy.”

If a fundamental understanding of STEM concepts is an advantage across all fields and all careers, how long before it is an expectation? A requirement? Would high school graduates choosing to enter the workforce fill those 600,000 open jobs if STEM had more of a share in their education?

Skeptics have every right to challenge and question ambitious announcements, and taking the lessons of history to heart as we move forward is a crucial element of innovation. But instead of pointing out every reason we shouldn’t explore coding as an education requirement, why can’t we, in light of economic projections, focus on how our students could benefit from making it a reality?

There are significant hurdles to technology-based innovations in education that critics rightly point out. A shortage of qualified teachers is an opportunity, not to encourage more college students majoring in STEM topics to become teachers in lieu of engineers, but to provide more teachers with skills and resources they can easily adopt in their classrooms.

The pervasive race and gender gap in STEM fields is an opportunity, and in the field of robotics, we are seeing progress already. In light of the makerspace movement, a suggestion has been made to pursue hands-on crafting as a gateway to STEM, but why introduce concepts like coding and robotics in such a roundabout way when current technology is capable of introducing these concepts inclusively at all skill levels? Technology that, if you can imagine, makes these concepts fun to explore?

We have a unique opportunity to address these challenges with new technologies that make them more manageable than ever before. Don’t we owe it to our students, and our future, to work together to find a way?

President Obama’s ambitious proposal doesn’t guarantee that past failures will become future successes, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken seriously. The technology gaps that exist will only grow ever wider due to inaction as industries continue to evolve and adopt technology.

The spirit of “computer science for all” is the right one. The movement’s heart is in the right place. Let’s move with the arc of history, skeptics and true believers alike, in service to our children, and the opportunities that will become available to them.

How can a program like this enhance an overall educational experience for students? Please share.

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.