There are high expectations that coding will bring more women and youth of color into STEM.
The field of test takers in the key STEM subject Computer Science "is...overwhelmingly white and male, according to data from the College Board which administers the AP tests." In nine states there are no African-American students taking the exam while in twenty-three states fewer than 10 black students are taking the exam. In Mississippi where half of the state's high school graduates are African-American, no black students passed the exam.
Female students are similarly unrepresented. In ten states fewer than 10 young women took the exam. No young women were represented on the test in Mississippi, Montana, or Wyoming. In South Carolina fewer than 1 of 5 of the AP Computer Science test takers were young women. (Heitin, 2015)
It is this equity problem that advocates of coding for all hope to solve by encouraging more kids, and especially young women and youth of color to learn to code. Even Snoop Dogg is quoted as "support tha american dream n make coding available to EVERYONE!!* [capitalization and spelling in original] (Anderson, 2015)
Legislators are pleased with what looks like a conveniently inexpensive fix for the equity problem.
For young women, black, and Latino youth, learning to code, the thinking is, becomes an accessible pathway into STEM content. After all, isn't coding a kind of computer science? There are abundant sources for instruction in coding not only in school but also in after-school programs, coding summer camps, and online programs that are often low cost or even free.
Policy makers have responded to the "learn to code" enthusiasm by creating incentives such as allowing students to use courses in programming as substitutes for courses in math, science, and even foreign language that are normally required for graduation. (Anderson, 2016)
How well does the coding for all strategy meet these expectations?
A number of STEM-savy observers like Kamau Bobb, a research scientist at Georgia Tech now on special assignment at the National Science Foundation, reject the strategy.
"It's a myth to think that students can simply learn to code and flourish without a minimum level of mathematical sophistication," he says. He is also concerned that the strategy will have unintended outcomes for the kids who usually are not tracked into advanced math and science classes; that is, young women, black and Latino students. They will learn to code but because they are not likely to also have the math sophistication they won't be competitive for better jobs. Having the skills to move up the job ladder requires that "all students must have access to an expansive computer-science education with a quality math program." (Anderson, 2016)
Examination of computer science content supports Bobb's argument that there is an important difference between being trained to use a programming language and being educated in computer science. The first quotation below is from the Introduction to AP Computer Science Principles (2014) while the second is from the description of a high school level java programming course designed by k12.com, a company that markets school curricula.
Computer Science Principles: This course is unique in its focus on fostering students to be creative...Rather than teaching a particular programming language or tool, the course focuses on using technology and programming as a means to solve computational problems and create exciting and personally relevant artifacts. Students design and implement innovative solutions using an iterative process similar to what artists, writers, computer scientists, and engineers use to bring ideas to life. (College Board, 2014)
Java Programming Course: This introductory-level, one-semester course is designed for people who have very little programming experience. In Java Programming, students gain an understanding of Java platforms and learn how to build a stand-alone application, such as a countdown clock or leap year indicator.
The learning to code strategy is a kind of kludge to repair the damage caused by the fact that our schools provide very different opportunities for children from different backgrounds. Children from affluent backgrounds are more likely to end up in gifted, high-track, AP, IB classes while children from economically poor backgrounds are not.
We have blogged (October 2014) about the Google CS and Intel's Computer Clubhouse programs and would like to make clear that neither of these programs are about simply learning to code. Both are based on the M.I.T. Media Center's Scratch language which is designed as a "learning" language. Mitch Resnick, the director of the Lifelong Kindergarten program at the M. I. T. Media Center, makes the case that learning "to think and to act creatively" is the real preparation for a world characterized by rapid transformations. As he puts it:
Today's children will face a continual stream of new issues and unexpected challenges in the future. Many things that they learn today will be obsolete tomorrow. To thrive, they must learn to design innovative solutions to the unexpected problems that will undoubtedly arise in their lives. Their success and satisfaction will be based on their ability to think and act creatively. Knowledge alone is not enough: they must learn how to use their knowledge creatively.
Both the Google CS and the Computer Clubhouses are built around what Resnick calls the four Ps: projects ("people learn best when they are working on meaningful projects), peers (learning flourishes as a social activity), passion ("When people work on projects they care about, they work longer and harder, persist in the face of challenges, and learn more in the process"), and play ("Learning involves playful experimentation...") (Resnick, 2015)
A more thoughtful approach to the equity question would replace a blanket endorsement of "coding" with a focus on ensuring that all children have access to high quality instruction in math and science content at every grade in school. Further, coding courses should be designed to be consistent with Resnick's four Ps as are Google CS First and the Computer Clubhouse.
Anderson, M. D. (2015). Will the Push for Coding Lead to "Technical Ghettos?". The Atlantic.
CollegeBoard. (2014). AP Computer Science Principles.
Heitin, L. (2015). Still No African-Americans Taking the AP Computer Science Exam in Nine States. Education Week.
Resnick, M. (2015). Give the P's a Chance: Projects, Peers, Passion, Play.
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.