Reading, writing, arithmetic, and coding: That’s the new curriculum in England’s public schools. England became the first country in the European Union to mandate computer science classes for all children between the ages of 5 and 16, starting with this school year. Depending on their age, students are getting lessons on algorithms, debugging programs, and coding in languages such as Java.
Meanwhile, some schools in Estonia are teaching programming to pupils as young as 6. Programming is scheduled to become part of the curriculum in Finland starting in 2016. Italy, Singapore, and other countries are working on changing their curricula.
There are several reasons behind such efforts. As the world becomes more dependent on computers, some countries want their youngsters to better understand software. Others say digital literacy and informatics (the British term for information science) are essential components of a modern education, and failing to teach such skills will harm their country’s economy. Many also say that teaching students to code is the first step in getting them interested in pursuing careers in the information, computing, and technology (ICT) fields.
Another factor is pressure from high-tech companies, which are demanding countries change what they teach to address the growing shortage of people with ICT skills.
In an open letter to the EU’s education ministers, published in Forbes in October, representatives of Facebook, Microsoft, Rovio, and other firms asked for more action to fill what they estimate will be 900,000 vacant jobs in Europe’s ICT sector by 2020.
“As stewards of Europe’s future generations, you will be all too aware that as early as the age of 7, children reach a critical juncture, when they are learning the core life skills of reading, writing, and basic math,” the letter’s authors wrote. “However, to flourish in tomorrow’s digital economy and society, they should also be learning to code. And many, sadly, are not. All too often, ICT and computer science skills are seen as niche, with little relevance to other fundamental academic pursuits.”
The United States does not require such mandatory courses either, leaving education decisions to its individual states.
Some IEEE members are working to make coding courses mandatory in their countries.
The Report of the Joint Informatics Europe and ACM Europe Working Group on Informatics Education, released in April 2013, is what spurred action in the EU. It was developed by a group of experts from academia and industry representing the two principal scientific societies in the field, Informatics Europe and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). The report covered a broad range of disciplines, experiences, and countries. Informatics Europe is an association of computer science departments and research laboratories. ACM is the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society.
The report defined a blueprint for European digital literacy and informatics curricula, and it explained why they are critical to countries’ economic health.
Developing precise courses of study was beyond the scope of the report. Based on the report’s recommendations, though, the curricula that will be developed likely will take into account constraints of individual countries, such as a lack of computers, Internet connections, or qualified instructors.
“European nations are harming their primary and secondary school students, both educationally and economically, by failing to offer them an education in the fundamentals of informatics,” the report says. “Continuation of this failure would put the European economy at risk by causing students to lag behind those of many other countries, including emerging but increasingly competitive countries.
“Informatics education must become, along with digital literacy, an obligatory part of general education. Informatics will be necessary to future economic health. This is where the next generation is going to be doing the important work, and Europe overlooks this at its peril.”
Italy used the report’s guidelines to develop a curriculum that includes mandatory coding and computing courses for its preuniversity students, similar to what England has done, according to IEEE Senior Member Claudio G. Demartini, a member of the steering committee working on the issue for Italy’s Education Ministry. He is a computer engineering professor at Politecnico di Torino.
In the United States, courses on coding and other computer science skills are determined by local school districts. Most often, if such classes are taught, they are electives.
“The importance of making coding a core requirement rather than an elective is that coding is a gateway to computer science,” says IEEE Member Dusty Fisher, the principal at Race Street Group, in Denver. She is part of a movement to make science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, including computer science and coding, required in U.S. high schools, and mandated by the federal government, not the states.
Currently, half the states allow high school computer science classes to count as a mathematics or science credit, and several other states are considering a similar approach. There is no nationwide consensus, though. In Texas, for example, students may take a computer science course to satisfy a foreign-language requirement.
Some 30 school districts, including ones in New York City and Chicago, have added coding classes this school year, mainly in high school but in lower grades, too.
“I think that today’s kids are kind of scared of coding because when they first see it on the screen, it’s a mess. It looks like it’s written in another language,” says Fisher, a solutions architect. “But when they see how easy it is to understand, it becomes like a video game. You do something on the screen, and you see how it works; it’s like magic in a way.”
She encourages IEEE members who agree that coding classes should be required to write to their representatives at the state and federal level.
“I think getting people to understand that training kids how to code is necessary for our future economic growth and stability, and for good careers and more jobs for our students,” she says.
IEEE has not taken a position on whether computer science and coding should be required courses, but it is involved in several initiatives that support more computer education for youngsters. The IEEE Computer Society is a partner of Code.org, which aims to expand participation in computer science by making it available in more schools. The nonprofit says computer science and programming should be part of the core curriculum, alongside other STEM courses.
The society also is involved in the organization’s Hour of Code, an annual event that introduces students of all ages to computer science with fun hour-long activities designed to demystify coding and show that anybody can learn the basics. This year’s event, scheduled to run from 8 to 14 December, coincides with Computer Science Education Week, which aims to increase awareness of the field. The IEEE Computer Society is a founding partner of Computer Science Education Week.
The Computer Society, along with IEEE Educational Activities, developed TryComputing.org, which is aimed at preuniversity students, their parents, and teachers. The website was developed to encourage students to check out such fields as video-game design, social media, software development, and network engineering.
“Students of all ages should have the opportunity to learn how to code,” says Theodore Rozolis, senior manager with the society’s member and geographic activities department. “A computer science degree leads to top-paying programming jobs, which are growing at two times the national average.”