Moving her finger over the laptop trackpad, 6-year-old Lauren Meek drags and drops a block of code to build a set of instructions. She clicks the “run” button and watches as the character moves through a maze. She then pumps her fist in excitement.
“Yes! This is so easy,” says Meek, a kindergartener at Marshall Elementary in Marysville, north of Seattle.
This fall, most elementary school students in the Marysville School District are getting 40-minute weekly computer science lessons as part of their core instruction — part of a growing effort nationwide to expose more public school children to computer science, even as early as in kindergarten.
Backed by technology leaders, nonprofits and companies, schools in New York, San Francisco and other cities have committed to offer computer science to students in all grade levels. Chicago also says computer science will eventually become a high school requirement.
Supporters say it’s not just about learning how to code, but learning how computers work. They say computer science teaches kids to think logically, be creative and exposes them early to the technology that will drive their future.
“In the 21st century, computer science is just as foundational as biology, chemistry,” said Hadi Partovi, founder and CEO of Code.org, a Seattle-based national nonprofit that works to expand access to computer science and increase participation by women and minorities.
The group is also behind a campaign to get millions of students to participate in an “Hour of Code,” which takes place next week.
Bringing computer science into the schools ensures that everyone has an opportunity to become digitally literate, said Yasmin Kafai, a professor of learning sciences at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.
“We’re not talking about turning everybody into a computer programmer or computer scientist,” said Kafai. “It’s a basic literacy.”
Learning computer science also opens the door to high-demand jobs. By 2020, 4.6 million of 9.2 million science, technology, engineering and math jobs will be in computing, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Jim Taylor, author of “Raising Generation Tech,” says there’s no evidence at this point that coding or computational learning works or is even needed. Kids don’t need to learn how to use digital technology at such a young age either, he added.
“Technology is the solution du jour for all our education problems. The problem is that technology emerges so quickly and gains traction that we don’t have time to examine its efficacy or ramifications,” Taylor said.
Computer science doesn’t enjoy the benefits of other disciplines, including agreed-upon standards or robust assessments to measure learning, said Jeanne Century, director of Outlier Research & Evaluation at the University of Chicago’s Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education.
But it’s the same argument as for science and math, she said. There are practical issues, such as more jobs requiring computer science. “Just as important is the fact that computing is everywhere in our lives. It’s pervasive all around us. We need to understand computing.”
One of the challenges is finding enough well-prepared teachers. Among other efforts, an initiative of the National Science Foundation is seeking to have 10,000 well-trained computer science teachers in thousands of high schools.
Currently, computer science is taught in only about one of four high schools nationwide with fewer in lower middle and elementary school grades. And only 27 states allow a computer science course to be counted toward graduation requirements in math or science, according to Code.org.
But there’s been a surge in interest in recent years. In 2015, nearly 49,000 students took the Advanced Placement exam in computer science, a 25 percent increase from the previous year.
“Colleges are saying, ‘there’s an incredible demand, we’d like to see more students become better prepared when they get here’,” said Terry Redican, vice president of Advanced Placement program at The College Board.
A new AP computer science principles course debuts next fall. That exam is designed to be multidisciplinary, focused on real-world applications and aimed at increasing representation among women and underrepresented minorities.
At Marshall Elementary, where more than half the students are low-income, principal Kelly Sheward embraces computer science as an opportunity. “It’s access that we didn’t previously have,” and ensures the kids will be prepared as their peers for the digital future, she said.
During a recent lesson using Code.org curriculum, teacher Sheena York asks a class of fifth-graders to identify the pattern in the computer puzzle and solve it in using the fewest steps. She urges them to try different strategies, test their work as they go along and ask each other for help.
“I’m figuring this out piece by piece to see if this works,” said Isiah Gibbs, 10. “That doesn’t work. So I’ll try something else.”
In the lower grades, students may learn about algorithms, or a set of instructions, such steps in a baking recipe. Older students may write programs that create a game or interactive story. Many lessons don’t involve computers, and math and other concepts are integrated into the lesson, York said.
“It’s almost as important as reading and math,” said fifth-grade teacher Hank Palmer.