Move over Spanish, French and Chinese.
A new set of languages, with names like Python, Ruby and Java, are on the rise.
In an age when technology plays an increasing role in everyone’s lives, there’s a growing movement nationally and in the Twin Cities to teach kids how to talk to computers.
Yet the lessons, for the most part, aren’t coming in school classrooms but through tablet apps, website tutorials and weekend workshops. Tech companies, in particular, are clamoring for more kids to learn computer coding, even opening their offices to teach the youngsters who may one day apply for jobs.
“Coding is the new language. Coding is the new literacy,” said Jocelyn Leavitt, CEO and co-founder of Hopscotch, an iPad app that aims to teach code to kids.
Nonprofit Code.org says that over the next 10 years there will be 1.4 million jobs in computer science, but just 400,000 qualified graduates. Yet it’s a skill, proponents say, that will even benefit kids who don’t grow up to be computer programmers.
“It’s kind of like looking under the hood of your car,” said Rebecca Schatz, founder of Code Savvy, a new Twin Cities nonprofit focused on helping kids learn computer programming. “It doesn’t mean you want to be a mechanic. It means you’re not moving in a world of magic and mystery.”
Jaiden Julson, 11, was trying to unlock that digital world at a recent session of CoderDojo Twin Cities.
“This is definitely not easy to do,” she said from her perch at a high table in the vibrant offices of Clockwork Active Media Systems in northeast Minneapolis. “It’s going to take a while.”
To the uninitiated, code looks like strings of numbers, punctuation and words. Altogether it might as well spell confusion. In order to teach kids these languages, apps and online games use movable color-coded blocks and animation to introduce the logic needed to communicate with computers.
Despite Julson’s initial hesitation, it took her only about 15 minutes to figure out some basics in Scratch, the intro-to-coding program she fiddled with at CoderDojo. Arranging a rainbow array of blocks that represent different coding functions — move, play, repeat — she made an animated character move to the short tune she composed.
“Whoa! There’s all this stuff you can do with animation and I can do it,” she said. “It’s cool.”
The free CoderDojo workshops, launched this spring and held every few weeks, draw 30 to 40 kids, ages 8 to 17. They cluster in groups to play with different programming languages, doing everything from basic animation to Web design under the guidance of mentors who work in the Twin Cities tech community.
“There’s an untapped reservoir of interest among young people who want to learn this stuff but aren’t necessarily getting this in school,” said Matt Gray, vice president of technology at Clockwork and an organizer of CoderDojo Twin Cities.
Currently, most formal computer programming education comes in college for those who study science, math and technology.
But in an era when there’s an app for almost everything, basic knowledge of coding — even in seemingly non-tech fields — goes a long way. Need an app for real estate or want to build a website for a business? Someone with coding skills can do it.
“I don’t think every person in the country needs to be a programmer, but it is increasingly becoming necessary to have enough tech literacy to participate and compete in the workforce,” Gray said.
In a video on the Code.org website, people as varied as Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, NBA star Chris Bosh and musician will.i.am urge kids to learn coding.
Tim Barrett, director of education and workforce development for the Minnesota High Tech Association, said local businesses — large and small — struggle to find people with computer programming skills.
“The need is really there,” he said. “It’s one of the hardest things to fulfill.”
To be sure, playing with apps or fiddling with some code for an afternoon won’t lead to immediate mastery. But proponents say it will introduce kids to the concepts and logic of computer programming, maybe even encourage them to explore further.
Jessica Zehavi, a software developer at Clockwork and mentor at CoderDojo Twin Cities, said the goal is “to unlock that creative spark.”
“We lead them wherever they want to go with it,” she said.
Carmen Bowser, who brought her sons Liam, Justin and Benjamen to a recent CoderDojo, said that little bit of guidance is all the kids need to dive in.
“It’s like the kid that runs to the end of the dock and jumps in the water. That’s how they learn,” Bowser said.
Her kids have picked up most of their computer skills by playing Minecraft at home and attending tech-focused summer camps and events like CoderDojo.
While some schools offer computer programming through electives or after-school programs, there is no state standard requiring the subject for graduation.
Barrett, of the Minnesota High Tech Association, said the group has had conversations with the state Department of Education about developing computer programming standards eventually. But it’s hard to develop curriculum and evaluation measures around such a complicated and fast-evolving topic, he said, especially when teachers already have many subjects to teach.
“That’s a long process,” he said. “It’s not easy to just drop in.”
Still, he said, there is outreach that can be done — getting tech professionals into classrooms to talk about what they do or supporting extracurricular programs.
“We need to have more kids doing this coding,” Barrett said. “That’s where all the jobs are going to be.”