'Hour of Code' STEM push drags us into reality

The point of schooling is to prepare children to function in the workplace, so why are governments ignoring the key trends that will shape our students' futures?
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer
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Non-profit Code.org has brought together some of the biggest names in both technology and politics to teach the next generation the basics of programming, and hopefully entice more students to consider computer science-based careers.

Code.org wants to change the general attitude that the United States holds of coding. Only one in ten schools in the U.S. offer Computer Science classes, and many of these are electives rather than credit-based, and so there is little to entice students to pursue the subject as part of a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) career. The non-profit has been campaigning for this to change in order to make sure the next generation are trained in these areas, and the "Hour of Code" promotion is designed to improve awareness around the issue -- as well as provide basic instruction for interested students of any age.

During this week, Code.org is asking teachers to dedicate one hour to educating students on programming as part of the Computer Science Education Week, running from December 9th to the 15th.

The organisation's push offers students the chance to use free tutorials to learn the basics of coding. Tutorials have been contributed by well-known faces including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, puzzles teach basic algorithms featuring games such as Angry Birds suitable for young learners, and Python, JavaScript and mobile applications have not been ignored.

Many of the tutorials are promoted as suitable for all ages, and some are focused on middle and high school ages. The scheme covers many of the most popular scripting languages, and encourage students to continue learning the basics once they have completed the "Hour of Code" lesson.

To further promote the cause, Apple and Microsoft are offering "Hour of Code" tutorial sessions at their retail outlets. In addition, this week you may see computer science-based materials on the home pages of companies including Google, YouTube and Disney, as shown above.

However, the promotion of this event by corporations including Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and Google has been criticised. Combine the race to innovate and the insinuation of technology into almost every facet of our lives, and you find you need skilled help to stay competitive as a company, especially on an international platform. The problem is that within computing, there is a chronic shortage in the talent pool. Some critics argue that the promotion of computer science in schools is not about training the next generation to equip them properly for the workplace, but is instead a recruiting drive that starts young.

Perhaps it is. Companies rarely back ventures unless there is a self-serving reason behind it, no matter how small. More people who understand how to program and are interested in technology are needed. But if someone has the aptitude and is later willing to work in the industry and enjoy the salary that comes with it -- after learning about computer science in school -- so what?

In a time where unemployment is high, degree holders and experienced workers are struggling to make ends meet, we need all the help we can get, and if tuition in programming helps job prospects, so be it. Generation Y struggles just to secure dead-end, minimum-wage jobs, and even if such campaigns are self-serving, they are also necessary. Speaking to AllThingsD about this criticism, Code.org co-founder Ali Partovi said:

"Hiring engineers is difficult for every company in America, not just Silicon Valley. The majority of tech jobs are not in Silicon Valley. Our motivation is really not about jobs at all, it's about preparing kids for life."

In a video designed to encourage the younger generation of Americans to consider STEM subjects for future studies, Obama said:

"Learning these skills isn't just important for your future, it's important for your country's future. If we want America to stay on the cutting edge, we need you to master the tools and technology that will change the way we do just about everything. Don't just buy a new video game, make one."

The non-profit says that even though the week has only just begun, 1.3 million students have completed the Hour of Code task, and 40 million lines of code have been written. The group hopes that by the end of the week, ten million students will have taught themselves the basics of programming, and one billion lines of code will be submitted.

If you can look past the annoyingly bouncy music complete with rapping and well-chosen smiling faces of all ages, the message holds merit. The fact that very few schools teach programming, beyond creating a basic HTML web page, is against us in the modern world -- where some of the most lucrative careers in the market are focused on computing, cybersecurity and programming. It's expected that businesses, hospitals, governments, leisure and almost every other industry in the West you can think of uses some level of technology -- but the days of businesses getting away with Word templates and Outlook are long gone. Now, businesses are expected to be immediately available through the Internet, they should have a social media presence and probably a mobile app, and marketing, PR, products and supply chains reflect the integration of modern technology. All these areas provide jobs for the next generation, and we do our students a disservice by not preparing them.

If we treat STEM -- in particular, Computer Science -- as a difficult subject which doesn't offer any merit in schools, it is the students themselves and country economies that will suffer as a result. The campaign proves that with the correct tuition, learning to code is easy -- and although it may frighten some students due to the math and science elements, starting early can dispel this worry.

In the same way that you learn a foreign language, beginning early makes the process easier. It'll take bigger budgets for schools who lack the equipment and more funding for teacher training, but for the sake of the future economy, Computer Science should not be ignored. At the least, it should be treated with the same level of importance as music, physical education or religious studies. 

It's not about making every new student a computer whiz or the next Bill Gates, but exposing them to the subject enough that they have the opportunity to enter the field, feel comfortable in modern workplaces and potentially take related courses in college later. Technology itself is a core element of life in the West, and the way to encourage students in STEM is to take away the 'elitist' view of the subject -- make it as core as English or Math, normalize it, and make it an option for further study -- rather than just an elective which contributes nothing to their school grades.

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