K-12 teachers and administrators have been listening to policy makers and industry leaders warn of the need for computer science instruction, such as a coding or robotics program, in U.S. schools for years. And the evidence they cite is compelling. For instance…
- Global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. estimates there will be 50 million new technology jobs created by 2030 as automation transforms the workforce. While artificial intelligence and robotics will change or eliminate many jobs, McKinsey says, these advancements will also create many new high-paying opportunities for computer scientists, engineers, and IT administrators.
- According to Code.org, there are nearly 500,000 open computing jobs in the United States right now, and yet the nation is not producing enough computer science graduates to fill them. Last year, fewer than 50,000 computer science majors graduated into the workforce.
- Although 58 percent of all new jobs in STEM-related fields are in computing, only 8 percent of the STEM degrees earned in the United States are in computer science, Code.org says.
Learning about coding and robotics can give students of all ages an effective on-ramp to computer science exploration. As educators Lynne Schrum and Sandi Sumerfield wrote for ISTE last year: “Robotics and coding provide hands-on and creative opportunities for learners to invent, solve problems, and create — perhaps the most appropriate implementation of STEM.” When taught well, these subjects can be fun and engaging for students.
Yet, introducing coding and robotics into the K-12 curriculum can be very challenging. Few K-12 instructors have much specialized knowledge in these topics, especially at the elementary and middle school level — and tight budgets are often an impediment as well.
Fortunately, a number of companies have recognized these challenges and have created resources aimed at solving them. As teachers and administrators look for simple ways to introduce coding and robotics into the curriculum, here are three key elements to consider that will make the process easier for everyone involved.
Is the coding or robotics program widely accessible for students?
To engage as many students as possible, a coding or robotics program should have multiple entry points that target various skill levels. Students should be able to learn and complete activities regardless of their experience or ability.
For instance, a coding program should include both a visual interface and a text editor, removing the intimidation factor for novice students by allowing them to drag and drop blocks of code into place. As beginners progress in their knowledge, they would be able to switch to a text editor to write the code behind these blocks — and students who have some prior exposure to coding would be able to jump into the programming at this more advanced level as well.
What’s more, the content should appeal to a wide range of students — not just boys or those who might be naturally drawn to math and technology, but also girls, students who are more creatively inclined, and those who don’t expect to pursue a STEM career. Research suggests that computer science instruction is more broadly appealing if it’s grounded in authentic projects and applications that demonstrate a real-world impact.
“If you teach computing that is just focused on programming, you will attract some students, but to generate a diverse group … it is important to emphasize how computing makes a difference in society,” researcher Linda Sax from the University of California, Los Angeles, told the Financial Times.
Is it accessible for teachers as well?
As researcher James A. Ejiwale from Jackson State University notes, a critical barrier standing in the way of successful STEM instruction is teacher capacity. That’s especially true when it comes to introducing coding or robotics, which are subjects that few K-12 teachers have much direct experience with.
Choosing a coding or robotics program that is easy for teachers to implement and doesn’t have a steep learning curve can help schools overcome this barrier. Introductory professional development to help non-STEM teachers become familiar with the world of coding and robotics will broaden the appetite for teachers to introduce the topic. In addition, a program that includes an online, self-paced curriculum for students would not require any specialized knowledge on the part of instructors.
But even then, teachers are likely to have questions at some point in the process. To help ensure a smooth implementation, an effective coding or robotics program should include plenty of teacher support at no additional cost, such as videos, webinars, and teacher guides.
Is it easily scalable?
Many schools have established after-school coding or robotics clubs that give students an opportunity to develop these skills within informal learning environments. Others offer coding or robotics instruction only to a select group of students, such as through a gifted education program.
While these programs are certainly valuable, they aren’t reaching enough students to broaden the STEM community — and they aren’t reaching every student in an equitable manner. What if students would like to take part in these activities, but they can’t, because they play a sport … or they work … or they don’t have a ride home after school? What about the students who aren’t part of a gifted education program? What about those who have no idea what engineering or coding is, or that these are viable career paths that might interest them? K-12 educators and administrators should look for coding and robotics resources that can be scaled easily across an entire school or district, so that all students have a chance to participate.
One of the challenges to scalability is the capacity of teachers to lead this instruction, but choosing a program that is easy to implement addresses this challenge. Another common barrier is cost; if a program and its components are too expensive, then it’s hard to get these tools into the hands of all students. Selecting a program that doesn’t require a lot of costly equipment can help schools bring coding or robotics to more students, thereby creating more equitable opportunities for everyone.
For example, CoderZ is a platform that gives students a cost-effective way to learn about robotics without needing expensive equipment. Students use a game-like interface to program virtual robots as they aim to solve various challenges.
Because both of these programs are offered online, students have access from any Internet-connected device either from home or at school. And the threshold for introducing these programs is minimal. A survey of teachers whose students took part in the finals of this year’s Cyber Robotics Coding Competition organized by Intelitek, the company behind CoderZ, showed that more than 40 percent of the teachers had no formal computer science or STEM education training.
Although introducing coding or robotics into the K-12 curriculum can be difficult, school and district leaders can improve their chances of success by looking for programs that are broadly accessible to both students and teachers, as well as tools and resources that are easily scalable. Giving all students the ability to learn about these topics can engage them in STEM education and possibly spark an interest in computer science — opening doors to a highly successful, in-demand career.