Remember readin’, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic? According to our Rethinking Education panelists, the three R’s need to be joined by a “C” — for computer science — or the US risks getting run over by more progressive nations. That was the opinion of Rodrigo Arboleda from the One Laptop Per Child organization, who spoke at Engadget Expand along with Jeff Branson from SparkFun and Pat Yongpradit from Code.org.
Pat kicked off the discussion by playing his organization’s YouTube video featuring the likes of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, which has been seen by some 10 million viewers. While motivational, it emphasized that only one in 10 American schools teach students how to code, a deficit that all three speakers found scandalous. Arboleda chalked it up to an educational system that still processes students like a factory that doesn’t take an individual student’s ability to learn into account. He added that more progressive countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Finland might soon be pumping out more computer scientists and engineers thanks to a strong emphasis on coding.
One of the strongest challenges is that computer sciences get a bad rap, associated as they are with a rigid male culture of uncreative learning. Prodded further by moderator Dana Wollman, Branson said that we could start by creating new systems and interfaces that eliminate gender bias, citing first-person shooter-type games as a prime offender. As far as being a rote discipline, Yongpradit argued that coding actually teaches creativity, problem-solving and a host of other life skills. By way of debunking the myth that programming is only for nerds, he showed a picture of his latest Code.org class — which featured as many jocks as geeks and more female than male students. As for geek culture now being cool, Branson added that SparkFun has to try less hard to attract students now, thanks to a new cachet for coding, robotics and the like.
Though many feel that there are already too many gadgets and too much internet in kids’ lives, Arboleda and One Laptop per Child have the opposite viewpoint. He said that a laptop could become a precious, transformational object for a child, taking them to new places in their personal development — especially if coupled with internet access. As for the sorry state of computer science in schools stateside, Yongpradit emphasized the need for teacher certification programs in computing, building a curriculum the same way math and sciences were: one block at a time. Arboleda took it a step further, saying that access to digital tools and internet has become “a basic human right” — severely disadvantaging those who lack them.