Can computer science education be fun?

Games that focus on concepts over programming languages teach students to think like a computer while having a little fun

Buses helped extend the reach of Africa Code Week in October, 2015.
Credit: Computerwoche

Retail sales and truck driving are two of the most common jobs in America. They are also jobs that may eventually be automated. That's why David Delmar, executive director and founder of Resilient Coders, said, "Coding is the new blue-collar job."

Accepting that reality, though, means that a lot has to change about how we educate kids. Yet, "For most states and school districts, the notion of computer science for every student is a relatively new and unexplored topic," according to Code.org. 

Even though there are currently 530,472 open computing jobs nationwide, only 42,969 computer science students graduated into the workforce last year.

Technology has certainly made its way into schools, and more educators are using various devices to enhance education. Using these devices has helped to shift the way parents and teachers think about public education and the need for computer science courses in schools, but it's been slow going.

In 2016, a steering committee initially comprised of the Computer Science Teachers Association, the Association for Computing Machinery and Code.org joined forces with educators and administrators to develop a new framework that defines computer science. Despite their joint efforts, "Only 35 states allow students to count computer science courses toward high school graduation."

That statistic wouldn't shock the innovative thinkers at ThinkFun who believe, "Students begin their computer science education with significant conceptual hurdles to overcome that our education system does not prepare them for."

Mark Engelberg, educator, former NASA engineer, game inventor, and consultant for ThinkFun, sees great value in programming education, particularly when it is taught in less traditional ways. 

Given the chance to learn through games helps children understand real-world problems and approach them in logical, computational, and mathematical terms.

"Math, science, and the arts, each of these give students a powerful new lens through which to view the world," Engleberg said. Programming is simply another lens. A different way to look at or think about the world. 

When children learn through a "programming perspective," Engelberg said, "They gain access to powerful critical thinking skills that allow them to identify the essential steps of solving a problem in order to tackle new variations with ease."

They gain the ability to understand and interpret data, to build algorithms that can be used to automate complex tasks, and to model problems as executable processes, Engelberg said. "Students who learn to program will have an edge in every academic subject they later encounter."

Perhaps of greater importance are the implications those skills will have on the future. As our world becomes increasingly more interconnected, programming touches every facet of our lives.

"Our world is powered by data-driven algorithms; A.I.'s and robots can now automate an astonishing array of tasks that previously were thought to require human judgment and creativity," Engelberg said.

Those who are able to combine their knowledge of programming languages with the skills acquired through computer science activities will be able to design and interact with these systems. "They will," Engelberg said, "build our future."  

Certainly we don't have a crystal ball, but we do know that today's students are being educated in the same core subjects that have existed for centuries, yet they are expected to somehow be prepared for the jobs that don't even exist yet. This begs the question, "What essential skills do students need to learn that will transcend time?"

The answer to that might mean that adults have to let go of the traditions of the past in order to prepare this generation for the jobs of the future. "We need people from diverse backgrounds who can bring a programming mindset to whatever career they choose," Engelberg said.

For this reason, we need to rethink the way that kids learn computer science skills, which ThinkFun attempts to do with its mind-stretching games such as On the Brink, Rover Control and Robot Repair.

I'm excited to let you know that a set of the games is making its way to my doorstep (possibly via a drone?). I'll post another blog after I've had a chance to play.

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