From Algorithms to Art

How are people supposed to understand the complexities of such an important field as computer science when most schools in the United States don't even teach it?

On December 7-13, the nonprofit will address this question during Computer Science Education Week by launching "The Hour of Code" to demonstrate that anyone can create computer code. Honoring the birthday of computer pioneer Admiral Grace Hopper, who popularized the term "debugging," Computer Science Education Week encourages people of all ages to learn more about computer science and its transformative role in our digital world.

Since 2013, the Hour of Code has introduced over 100 million students to computer science with tutorials in 40 languages as well as partnering with 70 public school districts nationwide to expand computer science programs. Last year, Barack Obama became the first US President to program a computer, writing a few lines of JavaScript.

In today's workforce, computational skills are in high demand. According to Bureau of Labor statistics, 4.6 million out of 9.2 million STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jobs will be in computing by 2020, but only 19% of U.S. high-school students take a computer science class. Moreover, women, African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and individuals with disabilities take these courses in remarkably low numbers. These individuals make up 70% of the nation's population.

To address the diversity gap in computing, the National Science Foundation's CS 10K Project is making computer science accessible in high schools by introducing computer science courses to 10,000 schools taught by 10,000 well-prepared teachers. The project focuses in particular on traditionally underrepresented groups.

Out-of-school programs involving project-based, hands-on learning also offer engaging computing experiences to spark children of all backgrounds. Each year, The Computer Clubhouse Network enables 25,000 underserved youth guided by adult mentors in 100 Clubhouses worldwide to build confidence, develop skills, and change lives through the creative use of technology; 42 percent are girls -- an estimated 50,000 young women since 1994.

Santa Fe Institute's Project GUTS, a STEM and computer science afterschool program, helps middle school students acquire computational thinking and inquiry skills. Participants design, create and test computer models to simulate scenarios for real issues such as the spread of contagious disease.

Science centers and museums can play a key role in STEM education. According to the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC), total attendance for 151 US centers in 2013 was nearly 54 million. With resources that many schools don't have, museums offer interactive activities complementing the school curriculum that can excite students.

In one unusual example, The Science Behind Pixar exhibition at the Museum of Science, Boston explores the computer science, STEM, and art used by Pixar Animation Studios to create award-winning animated films, from Toy Story and Finding Nemo to Inside Out. The exhibition shows how algorithms and digital code can become lovable characters like toys, fish, and the emotions of an 11-year-old girl.

The interactive experiences engage visitors in computational thinking practices in the real-world applications of filmmaking. They experiment, for example, with modeling, simulation, and rendering through screen-based and physical activities surrounded by human-size recreations of characters like Buzz Lightyear, Mike and Sulley, and WALL•E. In January 2016, this national exhibition will travel to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and then on to other venues across the country. At the same time, we must strive to make computer science a core academic course. Students need it to succeed in the 21st century. You might also try your first Hour of Code. You'd be joining millions of people -- almost half are female, 35 percent are African-American or Latino. Take heart. Five-year-olds can act out computer logic as they walk through a maze.

Ioannis Miaoulis, PhD, is president and director of the Museum of Science, Boston and former dean of Tufts School of Engineering.