As I waited for my first grader, Gabriel, to come out of his after school care classroom, I powered up LightBot, a mobile game designed to introduce programming principles to kids, for his younger brother Zeke to play. After a few taps to maneuver the robot to light up the final square, Zeke clapped his hands and as he looked up with a big smile on his face, he saw that a captivated audience of first graders had crowded around him, eager to get a turn at the game. This unplanned demo led by my youngest son made me wonder if the parents of Gabriel's classmates were introducing them to games based in computational thinking and computer science, they certainly seemed eager to learn more.
This week is Computer Science Education Week, an annual week of programs dedicated to inspiring K-12 students to take interest in computer science, and it is a perfect opportunity for parents to get engaged. While not every student will become a computer scientist, a baseline understanding of computer science can help develop better thinkers and more informed users of technology. Unfortunately 75% of high schools in the US don't offer classes in computer science or coding and by 2020, there could be 1 million more computing jobs than there are students to fill them. This is a missed opportunity for our students and our nation.
I feel incredibly lucky that my job at Google is to run a team where the mission is to solve this challenge. We're conducting research that looks at who does and doesn't have access to computers and coding classes and what drives students, especially those underrepresented in the tech industry, to go into computer science in the first place. We're also working to create ways for more students to have access and exposure to computer science opportunities outside the classroom. The challenges above can't be solved easily but they can be tackled with action from parents that's focused on encouragement and exposure-- things that parents know how to do well.
If you're not sure where to begin, I've answered some of the most common questions we hear from parents below. And don't worry, you don't need a degree in computer science to get involved!
What is computer science anyway? Google's research has found that more than half of parents, teachers, and principals have trouble defining computer science. Let's clear this up. Computer science is building the machines, developing the set of instructions that tell the machines what to do and how all of this applies to solving world problems. (ACM/CSTA Model Curriculum for K-12 Computer Science)
Is computer science only for "nerds"? Absolutely not! It's our job as parents to help debunk this myth, but that's tricky when many students have the impression that computer scientists are super nerdy men with glasses. At Google we're doing our part by advocating for positive and diverse images of computer science on screen. Recent examples of our work with Hollywood include Loretta from Miles from Tomorrowland on Disney Junior and Mariana from ABC Family's The Fosters. We need to ensure that our kids are exposed to positive role models both on- and off-screen. Made with Code is an initiative to inspire girls to see that code can help them pursue their passions by highlighting diverse role models as mentors who have integrated coding into their lives in fun and creative ways.
Computer science classes aren't offered at my child's school. Where can I find CS-related clubs or activities? Lots of activities are vying for our kids' attention. As parents, we need not only to find opportunities, but to prioritize the ones that work with our student's learning styles. Ideally, all schools would offer computer science to all students, but that's easier said than done. We've learned that 85% of parents believe that computer science is as important as math, history, or English. Yet only 25% of schools offer computer science. To close the gap, parents need alternative computer science learning resources outside of school.
There are now a host of introductory and free programs for elementary school students including Google's High Seas and Inside Out Hour of Code activities, which are one-hour introductions to computer science designed to demystify code and show that anybody can learn the basics. There's also CS Unplugged which doesn't even require access to technology. If your student is in middle school or high school, you can find programs through The Connectory, including Google's free CS First program, which helps any adult - a teacher, parent, or coach - facilitate a coding club. Hopefully with more options and lower barriers to entry, parents will have the flexibility to choose the right computer science learning opportunity for their families.
What can I do to encourage my student? Ensuring that your kids have access to computer science education, however, is just half the battle. You also have a critical role when it comes to encouraging your kids. For some parents it might be learning alongside your kids or driving them to coding events. While for others it may be helping to critique a science fair project like Hania Guiagoussou's father who pushed her to focus on ideas that would have a social impact. Hania went on to become the youngest recipient of Oracle's 2015 Duke's Choice Award, which celebrates innovation in the use of Java technology, for her WaterSaver project that helps consumers control and monitor their water use.
What happens when the projects become harder and the problem sets start to require more effort? In NCWIT's Top 10 Ways Families Can Encourage Girls' Interest in Computing, one of the recommendations when the going gets tough is to help our students have a growth mindset. As Carol Dweck writes in her book Mindset, "if parents want to give their kid a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their kid to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning."
With each exposure to fun learning opportunities that integrate computer science principles, both of my sons Gabriel and Zeke are starting down a path to be creators as well as more educated consumers of technology. My hope is that all parents will understand the critical role that they play in shaping their students' mindset for lifelong learning and see the power of computer science to make our lives and the lives of those around us better.
Mo Fong is the Director K-12 Education Outreach at Google. To learn more about Google's CS work, check out g.co/csedu