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Teresa Barber: Coding to catch up the literacy we’ve ignored

It’s computer science education week.

We are anticipating the largest learning event in history through the Hour of Code this week. While I’m writing this column, 147,908,891 learners have received a cost-free introduction to coding and computer science around the globe and across 40 different languages.

Google, Facebook, SalesForce, Disney Infinity, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, College Board, PopCap, and other corporate partners are investing to help drive the movement. STEM and tech skills are recognized in the board room as vital to success, and to building and sustaining a reliable pipeline of talent.

Computer science can easily be pointed to as part of the “T” in STEM (an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math). But that’s not quite the full picture.

Companies across industries, from aviation and aerospace to healthcare and logistics, already get it. Programming, critical thinking, coding, and computer proficiency are needed among workers now, and will be needed increasingly in years ahead as technology continues to evolve. Problem-solving and creativity are outcomes that occur when we break down the silos between the letters of the acronym. They occur  when we work across individual disciplines, roll up our sleeves, and engage abstract concepts and creativity to build, understand, engineer, solve, and collaborate.

The way we interact with machines in daily consumer and work life has dramatically evolved. We once used a telephone, a fax machine, a courier, a television, a VCR, a white board, a magazine rack, a book shelf. We now have single devices providing multiple services. Industry has kept pace with these shifts. When I first learned to code in Basic as a kid in the ’80s, I worked on big, boxy Macs with green cursors that took minutes sometimes to process entries. All levels of professionals now use graphic-rich and user-friendly intermediary apps and programs to complete many tasks, from designing websites with a few simple clicks to monitoring health data.

Today, data plays a big role in operational and strategic decisions for industry. Ships and logistics systems use timing and information to track inventory and continuously improve shipment and inventory processes. On the manufacturing floor, computers guide production of life-saving equipment, and delicate machine components. The workers who can adapt to new tech skills have an advantage. Those who can create new apps, intermediary software and interfaces, and technologies even more so.

The boardroom gets it. The question of ensuring a workforce with computing skills isn’t just a question of checking the box for the “T” in STEM. It’s about providing the tools of today, and engaging with hands-on opportunities to learn, explore, and create across subjects and problems. It has taken us too long to understand that our kids often are left without the tools needed to speak in the language of modern industry. If coding and programming are so vital to innovation, creativity, industry, and job readiness why haven’t we prepared ourselves and our kids?

Computer science is still often in a silo. STEM programming in general is frequently cornered off from “regular” curricula.

The STEM Act of 2015 moves our definition forward to acknowledge that learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom. To that end, programming in science centers, museums, after-school programs, camps, and other spaces can receive allocations of existing federal funding for STEM programming. Further, the Act instructs the National Science Foundation to continue to fund extracurricular programs in STEM fields.

While an hour is great to introduce a child to the world of coding and programming, it’s the long-haul that counts. Up until this point, we have largely neglected the need for the tech skills that hold such significant relevance to our industries, workforce readiness, and our economic competitiveness. STEM, and computing specifically, has long been a literacy area we have all but ignored.

Computing is key to our ability to create, connect, make and build things, and work together. In Florida, kids graduating with strong STEM skills, especially in computing, have a distinct advantage. Those skills are in demand, and the supply is short. Analysis from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that from October 2014 through October 2015, STEM job postings increased by 10.9 percent in Florida, compared with 4.4 percent nationally.

According to Change the Equation, a typical computer programmer with only some college earns more than a typical non-STEM worker with a bachelor’s degree: $76,000 for the worker who can program but has no four-year degree; $73,000 for the one who can’t program but graduated from a four-year institution.
The critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills employed through STEM programming help students and learners (of all ages) adapt to new situations and processes – an important quality, considering the speed of technology’s evolution and its impact on workplace roles and demands, and especially considering that many of the jobs today’s kids will be applying for in 15 years don’t even yet exist. Youngsters engaged in STEM programming are also getting a taste of the “how” and the “why” and being encouraged to ask questions, and figure out answers. Isn’t this core to the American spirit of innovation?

With some of the recent shifts in federal policy, including the changes brought forward by the STEM Education Act of 2015, we have an opportunity in our communities to advance our own “how” and “why” for learning, job readiness, and innovation. As a nation, we’re catching up to what we as individual hot spots of educators, regional leaders, economic developers, and kids have known for a while now: STEM isn’t just an acronym, it’s a verb. We should be STEMming everywhere we go. As a nation, we’re realizing that the very language of innovation, connectivity, and industry has evolved and is continuing to do so.

For a nation that aspires to gain position as a a creative engine for ideas, products, services, and solutions, this is good news.

Teresa Barber is founder and principal at Five Point and chairman of the board for STEM Story, a national nonprofit sparking girls’ awareness of STEM careers through video and mentoring. She also supports STEMflorida Inc. as director of Strategy & Engagement. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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