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I like to think that I received a fairly well rounded education prior to setting foot on Harvard’s campus. And with one main exception, I can do so with confidence. I may not choose to pursue a degree in English or in theoretical math, but I’ve been reading, writing, adding, and subtracting since kindergarten. I may not become a historian, but I know enough to understand the basics of the Great Depression or the Aztec Empire. And I definitely will not become a chemistry concentrator, but I can still comprehend the fundamentals of chemical bonding. Yet I use a computer every day and I barely know how to write a single line of code.
Sure, I could suffer through lengthy problem sets and stressful exams and walk away with a solid footing in computer science, proudly wearing a T-shirt proclaiming that “I took CS50.” But I didn’t have to wait until college to learn how to write a thesis statement or to learn what happened in the Revolutionary War. With technology so central to society, computer programming should be treated as a basic skill, just like math and writing, and should be part of any average grade school curriculum.
A new non-profit organization called Code.org that launched this January aspires to achieve just that. Their mission, to build a database of programming schools and to spread the word that programming is both easy and important to learn, is spot-on.
The benefits of an increased focus on computer science education are clear. Statistics show that there are more jobs available in computer science than there are workers to fill them, and these jobs are growing at above-average rates. Specifically, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a total of 746,500 new jobs to form in the computer and information technology field between 2010 and 2020. Yet a study by the National Center for Education Statistics reported that the number of students studying computer science actually decreased from 1990 to 2009.
With so many people struggling to find jobs at all, a shortage of workers available to fill positions that pay very well is a big deal. Simply increasing the number of computer science majors could actually go a long way toward advancing the future U.S. economy. Further, an increase in computer science education can help the U.S. protect its international standing. With more programmers, the U.S. won’t have to outsource as many programming jobs, and can remain a global leader in technology and innovation.
Yet programming skills are also useful for those who don’t want to pursue computer science as a career. Computer science is commonly seen as inaccessible, as an independent field exclusively for the nerdy and mathematically-minded (think Mark Zuckerberg). These misperceptions arise because computer science has only recently surged in importance. The current generation of professionals may not have grown up using the internet, and so don’t fully recognize the relevance of becoming technologically literate.
With technology only growing in importance, however, programming skills can pay off in almost any field. Business, medicine, and agriculture all use computers, spreadsheets, and robotics, and even a basic ability to communicate about the programming behind this technology can spark innovation and cooperation. Plus, computer programming is a valuable form of education purely in terms of the way it makes us think. Elementary school education is not professionally focused, but rather gives students the basic skills they need to live adult lives in the future. Computer science helps students think logically and develop critical thinking skills, and it gives them more knowledge about technology they will use all throughout their lives. In this way, programming is a basic skill, just like math and writing.
Perhaps the most important message to take away, however, is that computer programming is easier than we think it is. One thing in particular stands out after a quick look at the educational resources linked to by Code.org.
“Drag commands to move a robot. Age 4+.”
“Help a robot-arm solve puzzles. Age 8+.”
“Design a 3D game world. Age 8+.”
“Learn to program using Ruby. Age 12+.”
4-year-olds can learn this stuff. Sure, computer programming can get very advanced, as can any field. But we teach addition to students far too young to be calculating triple integrals, and there’s no reason we should see computer science any differently. If I’m 18 years old and I know nothing about a topic vital to almost every aspect of modern life, there’s something amiss.
Stephanie G. Franklin ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Dunster House.
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