“So the big takeaway here is that the more loops we used, the faster I was able to complete the dance, because it was easier for me to understand what the instructions actually were,” Aaron Daniels ’23 explains to students in a video for Code Haven’s Week Three Unplugged Activity. Aaron’s simple dance — clapping three times, then moving his hands back and forth to rest on his hips, then his head —  was meant to demonstrate how computers think about loop statements.

Volunteers in the Yale undergraduate group Code Haven spend one hour a week visiting classrooms in the New Haven school district to introduce the subject of computer science to elementary and middle schoolers. Their curriculum, developed and refined by Yale students since 2016, works to make learning Scratch — an educational programming language — easy and fun, with activities like dance parties, treasure hunts, card games, and Mad-Libs used in the classroom. 

“I always wished I had computer science introduced to me a little bit younger,” Eden Gorevoy ’24, one of the Code Haven co-presidents, told The Politic. “It’s important that they get access to it.”

According to the 2016 Trends in the State of Computer Science in U.S. K-12 Schools report by Google and Gallup, “the vast majority of parents (84%) and majorities of teachers (71%), principals (66%), and superintendents (65%) say that offering [Computer Science courses] is more important than or just as important as required courses like math, science, history, and English.” These are impressive statistics, and an updated report would likely show even higher percentages—but what is the source of this overwhelming belief in the importance of computer science education?

For Leigh Ann DeLyser, the executive director of computer science education equity organization CSforALL, the need for comprehensive, mandatory computer science education, in part, comes from the belief that understanding computers is a form of fundamental literacy. Knowing how to code, the argument goes, is just as important as knowing how to read, write, and perform arithmetic. 

“Education is about helping us navigate our world, be productive citizens, [and] be ready for whatever comes next,” DeLyser said in an interview with The Politic. “Computers influence our daily lives, and understanding the components of the world around you is just as important as knowing that there are cells in your body.”

DeLyser is hardly wrong — computers are ubiquitous. Children are more and more frequently spending greater and greater amounts of time on devices, even at very young ages. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no digital media exposure for children under 18 months of age, and less than one hour of screen time for children between the ages of two and five, over 87% of children in the Upstate KIDS study, which tracks children born between 2008 and 2010, exceeded those limits. Laptops and smartphones are only growing in their importance to the way we live our lives: They undergird our interactions with each other.

Despite this, Jay Lim, who co-teaches Introduction to Computing and Programming at Yale, doesn’t believe that a computer science education is necessary for every student yet. 

“Still, now, you can get by without really understanding computers,” Lim said in an interview with The Politic. “And if you really just wanted to live happily, understanding the fundamentals of programming is not really necessary. Maybe 10 to 20 years down the line, our kids will be required to learn programming.”

Increasingly, state government leaders seem to agree more with DeLyser than with Lim. Code.org’s 2020 State of Computer Science Education report found that 37 states have established academic standards for computer science education, and 20 states require all high schools to offer computer science courses, suggesting that advocacy efforts are having an impact. Asa Hutchinson, the governor of Arkansas and chairman of the National Governors Association, recently announced an initiative to increase access to computer science education nationally. This initiative expanded his efforts in the state of Arkansas, which currently offers computer science coursework in 92% of the state’s high schools and is seen as a leader in computer science education. Arkansas also saw significant increases in computer science course enrollment this year. 

While, as with any subject taught in schools, not every student will be invested in their computer science education, the goal of these initiatives is to help young people operate in a world increasingly reliant on the structures of computer science. 

Code.org writes that “the fields of software, computing, and computer science are plagued by stark underrepresentation by gender, race, ethnicity, geography, and family income.” The front-end impacts of underrepresentation are significant and dangerous  — for example, racial biases have been discovered in Google advertisements and AI-driven facial recognition programs

Though these biases are not embedded into programs intentionally, they cause real-world harm, and the hope is that bringing diversity to the tech industry will help prevent such oversights. Of course, diversifying the tech industry is easier said than done, but the hope is that expanding access to computer science education for students from a broader set of backgrounds will expand the talent pools these companies can draw from and combat the propensity for programming bias. 

“There are broad swaths of youth who are being gatekept, who think their path is determined, and I want to show them that’s bigger than what they think it is,” DeLyser said.

DeLyser knows what it’s like to feel like your path is predetermined — that feeling is what drew her to this advocacy work. 

“I grew up in rural America, and as a reasonably intelligent young woman…of course I was going to be a math teacher,” DeLyser said. Her high school counselor discouraged her choice to even attend college. To pay for her undergraduate education, she held a part-time job writing for database systems on campus. Today, she holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science and Cognitive Psychology from Carnegie Mellon University.

The addition of computer science as a core subject in school curricula is also an exciting opportunity to design and redesign education more broadly with an equity focus. 

“Schools should have teachers and admin working together, thinking about challenges facing students, and coming up with practical and worthwhile solutions.” 

To encourage this mindset, CSforALL provides what they call the SCRIPT —— which stands for “Strategic CSforALL Resource & Implementation Planning Tool —— to district and school leaders, to encourage the design of computer science curricula with meaningful outcomes and equity in mind. The SCRIPT program takes the form of workshops, rubrics, and other tools for the flexible design of rigorous and realistically implementable approaches to computer science education. 

These principles of thoughtful curriculum design are easily cross-applicable to other subjects. For example, DeLyser described an interaction with a charter school leader, who shared with her that they were planning to use the SCRIPT guidelines to reevaluate how all their courses were taught. 

Examples demonstrating how individuals can use coding to empower their local communities abound. In March 2020, Avi Schiffman, then a high school student from Washington state, created a highly-trafficked website that collects and displays COVID-19 data. In August 2021, high school sophomore and Tiyya Foundation volunteer  Madha Suraj developed an app that connects job seekers with employers, among other things. These young students exemplify how people can use computer science skills to achieve a diverse array of high-impact goals. 

“Students with that ability to think about how to tackle problems and how to create a technological intervention to change the world become better problem solvers,” DeLyser said. Before stepping into her role as the Executive Director of CSforALL, DeLyser taught computer science at both the high school and university levels. She said she has seen former students use their coding skills to approach critical problems in media, volunteer organization, and health, among other domains. Advocates for making computer science part of the core curriculum in K-12 education also emphasize the opportunities that mastery of coding can open up.

For individuals who aim to enter the workforce, the ability to code is crucial as employer demand for applicants with coding experience has manifested in impressive job prospects. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that computer and mathematical occupations enjoyed a median annual wage of $91,350 in 2020, more than double the overall job market’s median annual wage of $41,350. Between 2020 and 2030, the field is also projected to grow at nearly twice the rate of the overall job market. Computer science’s promise of good work and financial stability is undeniably appealing to many.

As cyberspace becomes more deeply entrenched in the everyman’s life, policymakers have begun to frame the need for a code-literate generation in terms of national security and competition, implying that computer science education in K-12 has national stakes. 

For example, the Obama administration’s CS For All initiative, signed into law in 2015, set aside billions of dollars in federal funding to expand access to computer science education. Its goal was to ensure “that our nation remains competitive in the global economy and strengthens its cybersecurity.”

More recently, in a White House statement from July of this year, the Biden administration wrote that “the cybersecurity threats posed to the systems that control and operate the critical infrastructure on which we all depend are among the most significant and growing issues confronting our Nation.” 

These concerns are not unfounded. The fact remains that the work available to those entering the American job market increasingly draws upon the field of computer science. 

Many students in Lim’s introductory computer science course, for example, are not computer science majors. He cited the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of work and research, heightened global interest in machine learning, and expanding fields of data collection and analysis as reasons that students majoring in different subjects are interested in learning to use computer science tools. 

Traditionally, the goal of education is, in part, to help students secure work post-graduation. As computer science becomes more ubiquitous, it follows that computer science education should have a meaningful place in K-12 curricula so that the skills job seekers have will match the skills work providers seek. This will allow American companies to keep pulling from American talent as they grow, and thereby strengthen the economy.

Computer science’s importance to national security is also undeniable. By “critical infrastructure,” Biden does not only refer to the intangible infrastructure of the internet and all that it supports, although disruptions here could be devastating. He also refers to physical infrastructure — power plants, dams, sewage treatment, and more — that is especially vulnerable to cyberterrorism. In February of 2021, for example, a hacker attempted to fill the water supply in Oldsmar, Florida, with dangerous chemicals. If a plant manager had not caught the attempt in time, about 15,000 customers would have been poisoned.  Our physical infrastructure is often not designed with cybersecurity in mind. Both the public and private domains need cybersecurity professionals as concern about vulnerable infrastructure grows. 

Computer science also, at least in theory, teaches students transferable skills that allow them to excel in other classroom subjects.

“Computer science is fairly well connected with mathematics,” Lim said. “It’s all about logic and flow, so by learning to do programming you think about how logic will work, how you can break down some sort of process into little steps and explain each of those steps clearly to a computer.” 

Aside from logical and structural thinking, it is almost a cliche in the computer science world to emphasize the creativity and perseverance coding can teach. Plus, students like to code — Anna Zhang ’24, the other Code Haven co-president, and Gorevoy told The Politic that the most satisfying part of Code Haven’s advocacy work, for them, was to see students “thrive, get creative, and become connected to everything in their own lives.”

All of these skills are valuable, and anecdotal evidence that computer science does something for students is abundant. 

“There’s some really good anecdotal evidence and stories, and we know that not having [computer science education] is really a blocker for inspiring young youth to pursue careers in the field, especially for disadvantaged students,” DeLyser said. 

Zhang and Gorevoy  agree, emphasizing the importance of showing kids “more people who don’t just fit the white male stereotype of what a computer scientist looks like.” They also noted that many of the same schools and teachers invite the group to visit annually, suggesting that teachers and students are finding value in learning to code.

Yet it is not yet possible to claim that computer science leads to cognitive benefits or improved outcomes for students via empirical means. 

In a recent review, researchers Ronny Scherer, Fazilat Siddiq, and Barbara Sanchez-Scherer called the evidence supporting the cognitive benefits of learning to code “promising.” However, the authors ultimately concluded that “more insights into the successful transfer [of cognitive skills] are needed to inform educational practice and policy-making about the opportunities to leverage the potential that lies within the teaching of coding.”

DeLyser acknowledged this gap. 

“We’re starting to see anecdotally that students who got early exposure to computer science do have better earning potential later in life and are more likely to choose a STEM career,” she said. “But that big data just hasn’t emerged yet because [computer science education] is so new.” 

Longitudinal studies tracking long-term student outcomes are in progress. For example, CSNYC, an initiative that built a foundation for computer science education in New York City public schools and that DeLyser formerly served as the Director of Research and Education for, will track students who participated in the program for ten years then publish their results. Still, anything close to conclusive evidence on the matter is several years off. 

It’s no wonder, then, that community leaders are somewhat hesitant to invest fully in computer science.  Despite increasing implementations of state standards, fewer states — only 20 — require all high schools to offer computer science courses, and only 18 states have developed “timelines, goals, and strategies for providing equitable access for all students, professional learning for teachers, and awareness of the importance of computer science” in communities. Nobody wants to be the guinea pig, especially when a failed experiment can be so costly. But questions regarding the implementation of computer science in classrooms have also developed.

With the benefits of computer science education being uncertain, we are left wondering what making computer science a core subject might come at the cost of. What gives the subject primacy over expanding early language learning programs, or spending more time ensuring that students meet minimum proficiency standards in subjects like mathematics and reading? 

At the same time, waiting for conclusive evidence before developing programs has its own costs. 

“Giving [K-12 students] exposure as early as possible would be best, but not how universities would teach computer science,” Lim said. “Maybe introducing toys that mimic how coding is done in elementary school would be nice. In middle school, maybe start giving some background knowledge — not a yearlong course specifically for programming, but a basic computer literacy course.” Then, if students enjoy coding, they would be able to take more technical courses in high school. 

Zhang and Gorevoy generally agreed with Lim. They envisioned a system focused on exposure, to cultivate a sense of problem-solving and show students fields of study and work in computer science. Computer science would be recurrently visited in the same way many subjects in science are, and students would ideally be able to write a simple script upon graduation. 

“We need the buy-in of school leaders, teachers, and policy-makers for computer science education to be seen as general literacy,” DeLyser said. “And we’re getting there… but we need to move beyond that simple ‘yes’ into ‘yes, and [computer science education is] a priority.’” 

Implementation depends on whether districts and states have the ability to increase access to computers and high speed internet and prepare educators to teach computer science at a sufficiently high level. 

Though challenges in increasing access to quality computer science education abound, preparing youth for a world increasingly reliant upon computers requires that those challenges must be met. Increasing access to this field sooner rather than later, through universal standards developed with equity and empowerment in mind, will only leave Americans better prepared to participate actively in our digital future.

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