If only I had learned to code!

Ana-María Medina, Ph.D., is a mom, a professor at St. Edward’s University, the founder of Loving Life is Easy, and the Homeschool/Alt Ed Marketing Coordinator at Code Wizards HQ. In this guest post she explains why learning the language of coding is just as important as learning a foreign language.

As a Spanish educator for the last seventeen years, I have the value of language acquisition memorized. I have convinced hundreds of students (and parents!) that second language and immersion experiences are investments that keep giving for the long term. None of this is new. The Eaton Institute outlines the Top 10 Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language, and among the weightiest of these are that it enhances brain power and that it improves career opportunities.

Considering that our kids are going into a world in which the college investment is, for many, of questionable value, the ability to stand out is a rarity, so learning a foreign language—or many—is a must. I specifically encourage Spanish. Spanish will be the most-spoken language on Earth in 2050. Although Spanish is a romance language (unlike English), it is, according to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, one of the top 10 easiest languages to learn for English speakers. This is another plus.

That being said, I now find myself encouraging fluency in a “newer language,” one that is equally accessible to all second language learners and can’t be misunderstood because of an accent or grammar: coding.

If you had ever told me that in 2019 I, as a humanist, would promote computer languages, I would have cried, bloody lie! Can it transform your personality? Can it bring cohesiveness to our society? Can it encourage new ways of seeing the world? To my surprise, I have discovered that the answer to all of these questions is YES.

This is why I am not only encouraging students to take coding but also reaching out to parents to humanize what can seem to be a very “inhuman” subject. Not long ago, if I had seen a screenshot of children’s computer coding work like the one below, I would not have gotten a sense of community or of creating something that could carry out such an intricate, complex task. But I was wrong. The way I view it now, the world is adapting to a new language that isn’t at all familiar to me but will be a game changer for my son.

Comic created using HTML code taught during live class instruction from  Code Wizards HQ . Photo credit:  Homeschool Review Crew .

Comic created using HTML code taught during live class instruction from Code Wizards HQ. Photo credit: Homeschool Review Crew.

Experts have hailed coding education as a huge benefit to a child’s future success in the job market. It enhances the ability to process problems logically (vs. emotionally) and adds nuance to the understanding of how our world works. Most importantly, however, may be that it is the newest way to actively engage in changing the future. How is this possible? Think about how Facebook, Netflix, Google, Apps, etc. have enabled activists to organize and reach out to others on critical issues and raise awareness of everything around us. Coding, some believe, has already changed the world for the better.

States are now proposing bills that would grant coding equal standing with other “traditional” second languages in school curricula. A fiery debate has ensued about equating one with the other. It isn’t a choice between one or the other, though. Our children need both. As an educator, my teaching philosophy isn’t “My goal is to teach students words”; rather, it is that “Through my classroom, students see and experience the Hispanic World.” Not only do I teach them the language; I also help them understand Spanish-speaking cultures and everything they entail, to the best of my ability in the time given. They say that hindsight is 20/20, and in this case it is true. I now see clearly that I could have provided my students even more opportunities in new and inspiring ways by collaborating with native speakers, reaching across the globe in seconds . . . if only I had learned to code.

Ana-María Medina, Ph.D.

Computer science is integral to a strong education

Lisa Zapalac is one of the co-owners of Long-View Micro School, an innovative new school in Austin that has a strong STEM focus. Lisa’s background in schools is extensive, as she has served as a principal, curriculum director, and teacher, working in both private and public schools, from preschool to high school. She is a dedicated proponent of early computer science and coding instruction and sees the results daily at Long-View.

We teach all children to write, but we don’t expect them all to necessarily become writers. In a world in which computing is ubiquitous and drives innovation in nearly every industry, it is important that we teach our children from an early age how to harness what is called “computational thinking.” Computer science is the broad area in which much of this would be taught to children, and computer science is now foundational to a strong education, right alongside reading, mathematics, science, and writing.

All kids will not end up as computer scientists, though we want many more to make that choice, as 71% of all new jobs in STEM are in computing and only 8% of STEM graduates are in computer science. However, most of our children will eventually find their jobs or their passions crossing over with computing. Whether they someday own a small business and recognize an app would accelerate revenue or they become a biologist who sees that the application of statistics, mathematics, and computer science holds the key to relations among several biological systems, computer science is key to being broadly educated and ensuring choice in future career pathways. This is sometimes referred to as the “double-deep” mandate, as the workforce will increasingly require sets of skills within technology and a secondary area, such as business, medicine, or sales.

Computer science is not just about sitting at a computer and coding. One might think of the relationship between arithmetic and mathematics (there is so much more to mathematics than only arithmetic!) when understanding coding and computer science. When taught properly, computer science will challenge students and teach them to approach problems in new and rigorous ways. It will stretch their logical thinking skills, and help them develop mindsets such as being curious and flexible. The core concepts and big ideas of computer science are broadly transferable, as CS is a discipline just like history, physics, or mathematics. It has a body of knowledge, and the thinking skills of the discipline will last students a lifetime. And there is ample evidence that the discipline of computer science is accessible to children in elementary school and onward.

What does it look like for young children to engage in a computer science class? Yesterday I watched a third grader, with a little bit of extra time on her hands, decide to challenge herself to code something she’d learned in math that day. She set forth to figure out how she’d write a program that allowed the user to consider two sets of numbers and then find the intersection of the two sets.

The third grader’s first thought was, “I don’t really know how to do that. The only thing I know for sure is that I can start with a print statement.” Using her knowledge of Python, she coded a few lines that would print onto the screen both sets of numbers, with six elements in each set. She then iterated her code by adding a line asking the user to consider both sets and then enter the value that represented the intersection of the two sets. After a peer tried out the fledgling program, the hard-working young computer scientist realized she had a problem to solve. What if the user inputted the wrong answer? How could she add to her program so the computer would respond by telling the user the answer was incorrect, and then allow for a new answer to be inputted?

The logical thinking and problem solving terrain that this young eight-year-old traversed, while also having to leverage her beginning knowledge of Python, is nothing short of remarkable. First and foremost, she was a curious learner who sought intellectual challenge. She found a starting point and had the stamina to continue breaking apart her problem. She was able to simultaneously think about the user’s experiences, the set theory she learned about in mathematics, and the coding language to which she’d been newly introduced. What a thinker!

As Jeannette Wing, Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon and VP of Microsoft Research, wrote in her seminal article in 2006, computational thinking “represents a universally applicable attitude and skill.” Her vision helped inspire innovation across the world, with England, as an example, leading as the first country to mandate computer programming instruction in primary and secondary schools. President Obama signed the U.S. education law called “Every Student Succeeds” and with it recognized computer science as a “critical academic field.” Our children live in a digital world, and we need to prepare them for the digital world by ensuring a baseline understanding. Computer science should be part of every child’s education experience.

Lisa Zapalac