As the chorus cheering the importance of computing has grown louder, so has the call to create more ways for historically marginalized groups to gain a foothold in tech companies. Kimberly Bryant, the founder and executive director of Black Girls Code, set out to “literally change the face of the [tech] industry” by giving young women of color exposure and hands-on training. Additionally, she sought to remove the cultural isolation she experienced throughout her schooling and career as an electrical engineer. Bryant’s group boasts that 5,000 girls have been served since 2011 by its programs—weekend, after-school, and summer coding camps and workshops—presumably creating a pipeline for youth of color into an industry that is categorically white and male-dominated.
The momentum for pushing youngsters into the world of coding is strong and growing. Last week Florida lawmakers approved a measure to allow the state’s high-school students to use computer coding to fulfill their foreign-language requirement for graduation. Fourteen states now permit students to apply computer-programming coursework to satisfy math, science, or foreign-language graduation credits, according to Education Commission of the States, a clearinghouse for state-level education policy. But some warn that computer science as an academic discipline is larger than coding—and in the haste to teach programming skills, the problem-solving and creative thinking that undergirds technical innovations is lost.
Joseph Sweeney, the associate head of school at the Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, a private college-prep school in Philadelphia, said the interest in coding academies and coding boot camps is encouraging, calling coding “a new literacy” in a society where computers are involved in nearly all aspects of people’s daily routines, including shopping, banking, entertainment, and travel. But he cautions that computational thinking is an entire body of knowledge and skills—a “mindset”—and needs to be taught as such.
“Coding is one piece of computational literacy and should be taught explicitly in school, but a semester or two of coding won’t do,” said Sweeney, who emphasized that a more “broad and deep approach” is necessary. He advocates a progression where students are challenged to use design thinking—a method that draws on logic, intuition, and different types of reasoning—to identify opportunities, harness the appropriate tools and resources, and demonstrate their outcomes. Offering a glimpse into the not-too-distant future, he describes a day when we can ask a computer to build an app to scan a restaurant’s menu item, build the recipe, make a grocery list, and order the food to our door on demand. “The artificial-intelligence system will build the app,” he said. “Coding might then be nearly obsolete, but computational thinking isn’t going away. It’s the thinking necessary for a world run for us by machines.”