Seriously, let's help ourselves.
NOTE: This piece was originally published in June, 2015. Since then, the Mississippi State Department of Education has launched the CS4MS pilot, an aggressive and needed step toward introducing computer science education as part of our curriculum before high school. All points in this piece continue to stand true today. Bottom line: we need universal coding education in Mississippi.
Today I sat on a panel at the TECHJXN Innovation Summit. TECHJXN is actually a two-day event which culminates in the largest student hackathon held in Mississippi. Today's event was a townhall focused on building innovation capacity and inclusiveness in Mississippi's capital city and beyond. I was honored to set on the lunch panel discussion as a representative of Fast Forward Mississippi/Kids Code Mississippi.
My slide deck was simple and direct:
• In 2014 we increased the number of students who took the AP computer science exam by 100%
• We shouldn't get too excited about this because that meant a grand total of two students took it. Neither African-American.
• The Bureau of Labor Statics forecasts that by the year 2020 there will be a need to fill 1.4 million "computer science" jobs.
• Currently, there are 400,000 students in the U.S. enrolled in "computer science" degree programs. That's a gap of 1 million jobs.
• Currently, only 2% of "Silicon Valley" type tech jobs are occupied by people of color.
• Mississippi is the state with the highest percentage of minority population in the country at approximately 40% of total population. See the opportunity?
All this being said, I made for a call which I hope will be considered by our elected officials and those in a position to influence education policy: Universal Coding Education for Mississippi students. And not in high school. At least as early as middle school. This could be the sea change that we need to turn tide of cyclic poverty, foster economic inclusiveness, and better yet become THE hot-spot for workforce development in the knowledge economy.
Our neighbor Arkansas has recently passed a comprehensive law making computer science mandatory for high school students. I would say let's follow their example, but I think the opportunity exists to do so much more. I've said it before - code is the 21st language of the 21st century knowledge economy. Those who can "speak" and write it fluently will be the winners in the knowledge economy. They will be the content creators, rather than the technology users. You wouldn't wait until high school to start teaching students proper English structure and diction, so why wait so late to do so with the language of code? Props to Arkansas for passing their law. But we can do better. Let's make coding/computer science education universal for middle school students.
So what would stand in our way? I can think of a few arguments:
1. Coding/computer science for kids this young isn't proven. Let's see what happens in other states.
I don't know about you, but I'm tired of waiting 10 - 20 years for a concept to be proven somewhere else and then adopt an standard that can quickly become obsolete. We've got to be more nimble than that. The mantra of the entrepreneur is "fail fast, fail cheap." I understand the education of our young people isn't something that we should flirt with failure in terms of educational experimentation, but we have to do something. Looking at the data and the forecasts and the way the economy is moving, I think we can't wait on this approach to be proven somewhere else. Since when did Mississippians like being followers rather than leaders, anyway? We hear all the time how our goal in this area or that area is to "meet the southeastern average." You know what it means when you meet the southeastern average? It means you're average. For the southeast. I'd rather be a national leader. I'd rather have Mississippi be the engine that grows the companies and supplies the workers for the knowledge economy. I'd rather our knowledge ecosystem and innovation culture attract talent to the state, rather than those who go into these creative fields being drained from us.
2. The infrastructure for this type of education initiative doesn't exist.
Valid point. Maybe it doesn't. But that also doesn't mean we can't take actionable steps to build the infrastructure and then plan what we're going to do with it in terms of knowledge workforce development. I've written quite a bit about the C Spire Fiber to the Home initiative. This isn't because I'm currently doing any work for C Spire (I'm not). Rather, this is because a private company has taken it upon itself to find the economic feasibility in building the first statewide fiber network in the country. And this program doesn't just focus on the Ridgelands and the Jacksons of Mississippi - small communities such as Corinth and Quitman are the phase 1 of the buildout. We have the opportunity to harness this best-in-class knowledge economy infrastructure in a way few other places can on a statewide level. Just a few weeks ago Governor Phil Bryant announced that $15 million of BP recovery money would be dedicated to improving broadband access along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We're building the infrastructure. Let's have a "shovel plan" in place for how to use it.
3. The teaching expertise doesn't exist.
Maybe not. True enough, there are not enough teachers across Mississippi skilled in coding and computer science to effectively teach it consistently. I'm also not a certifed HVAC repair person but I was able to rewire the relay switch on the circuit board of my home furnace recently. You know how? A YouTube tutorial. (NOTE - I am not recommending you undertake potentially deadly home repairs on your own.) My point is, there are alternative methods to at least introducing kids to code. When my 10-year-old wants to learn some new aspect of Minecraft or how to beat a particular character in any LEGO video game, he looks it up online and watches a video tutorial. Kids are used to learning in this manner. Also, kids that pick up on things like code development are particularly adept at helping other students: peer-to-peer. We've witnessed it countless times in hackathons. What I'm saying here is just because we don't have physical teaching capacity today doesn't mean we can't institute other avenues to start embedding knowledge worker skills in our kids.
4. It would be an expensive endeavor.
Hogwash. For starters, the are many free coding education platforms and courses that exist, and many others that can be licensed at very low cost. That doesn't count the dollars that are available from private foundations and even federal grants that have made this type of program a priority.
5. Code/computer science shouldn't be any more of a priority than foreign languages.
"Kids should focus on how to read and write first before learning computer skills." Ok, sure. But we don't not teach math to kids who are slower learning to read and write English. We all need to realize, code isn't a foreign language, it is a common language. It is the only language with which humans can give instructions to machines. We hear so much of how the robots are coming to take our jobs. Well, frankly they are. Many jobs - particularly professional ones that are based on stringent regulations - won't be done by humans in the near future. So who will have the jobs? Those individuals who know how to tell the robots how to do theirs.
I'll say it again as a call to Mississippi opinion leaders, policy makers, and elected officials: Let's commit ourselves to leading the knowledge economy, and let's start working toward universal coding/computer science education for our middle schoolers.
Postscript: A HUGE "thank you" to those elected officials, educators, policy experts, and other Mississippians who have made the CS4MS pilot a reality. Now let's accelerate.