Start ’em Young!

Educators and innovators are calling for an earlier introduction to computer science for U.S. school children. “Producing computer scientists and engineers to fill the demand from domestic companies should be a national priority,” says Jeannette Wing, head of the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University. While enrollment in engineering and computer science schools is growing, it is not growing at the same pace as other countries. In many such programs U.S. citizens are a minority. The class of 2012 at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science drew 2,390 applicants – 590 from the United States, 602 from India, 678 from China, and the rest from other countries. “Most (U.S.) students are not exposed to computer science in the same way they are to biology and physics,” Wing said. She is pushing for incorporating computer science in the K-12 curriculum.

Some educators believe that increased exposure to computers has naturally created a generation of computer whizzes. Digital natives are often assumed to have heightened computing and technical skills. Microsoft senior researcher Danah Boyd says the stereotype is false. While the vast majority of digital natives know how to chat on Facebook and text their friends, many lack media literacy and information literacy skills. “Ironically, they are often less skilled when it comes to technology than those already in the workforce. They may, on the whole, be more experimental, but they’re not necessarily more skilled,” Boyd states.

MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten group is working on one possible solution. The group has released tools that allow preschoolers and kindergartners to create animated stories on the computer through the use of modular blocks. The technology prepares children for learning how to program later in grade school. Mitch Resnick, director of the group, states that the intent is to allow children to “develop a relationship with the computer where they feel they’re in control.” “We don’t want kids to see the computer as something where they just browse and click. We want them to see digital technologies as something they can use to express themselves,” Resnick said.

Researchers at Cambridge have designed a fully functional Linux computer on a single circuit-board that is selling for just $35. Just connect a keyboard and display or television and you’re ready to go! The product is called the Raspberry Pi, and is selling like hotcakes. The primary intent of the inventors is to promote computer science and programming in grade schools. In an article about the device, columnist John Noughton points out that so far “we’ve taken a technology that can provide “power steering for the mind” (as a noted metaphor puts it) and turned it into a lesson for driving Microsoft Word.” Like the others quoted here, Noughton hopes that school systems can begin early in teaching children how to control and program computers to extend human capabilities and shape our future. Not to be passive users, but to become active developers and innovators.