Wednesday / April 24

Changing the Future, One Hour at a Time

Recently, I was chatting with a friend of mine about how much trouble my son is having with his first year in middle school. I shook my head as I described his grounding from “screen time” and wondered how to make him realize that he needs to become more responsible. Her response was, “I made my daughter clean house when her grades were bad, to help her understand that she needed a skill to fall back on if she was going to continue to get bad grades. There’s always work for housekeepers.”

“In that case,” I replied, “I should get him back to the computer as soon as possible.  Even with no diploma, he could make a healthy living as a computer scientist.”

Of course I was kidding about using that as a remedy to irresponsibility, but the statement was a hundred percent true; programmers are in high demand, and for many technology companies, the proof of your worth isn’t in your degree, it’s in your code.

Right now, the average salary for an entry-level programmer is $82,690, and that’s without the extra training that leads into the bonafide Software Developer workspace. These jobs aren’t difficult to find, either. There are positions all over the country, and there are large technology hubs in nearly a quarter of all US states.

All of this means that with a little guidance, my child could make nearly three times more than the average housekeeper by creating apps that assist people in emergencies or encourage them to be kind to their fellow human beings. Knowing these facts, just imagine the possibilities for students who complete their entire education, as well as get a few years of computer science under their belt.

None of this goodness is limited to the tech industry. In fact, by the year 2020, some level of computer science knowledge will be required for 60% of all STEM jobs, yet participation continues to decline. Even without taking future careers into account, the skills acquired by learning computer science can reap lifelong benefits, including persistence, problem-solving, and high-level creativity.

With all this bang and all those bucks, you’d think that people would be flocking to learn the art of computer science in any way that they can, right?  Wrong. Computer science is mistakenly viewed as elitist, complicated, and boring by those who have never been exposed to it. This means that most Americans don’t perceive it as a viable career choice for either themselves or their children. Fortunately, we have entered an age where computer science education is easily accessible, and this life-changing subject can be widely navigated with no risk and no cost to the explorer – starting with a single hour.

The Hour of Code is a movement by that piggybacks off of the success of December’s CSED Week. The purpose is to expose people to the creative, fun, playful, and artistic side of computer science, while stoking their interest to learn more. Each Hour of Code activity is presented with the intention of inspiring further investigation into computer science, without having to worry about costs or accountabilities. Some tutorials, like this one by Lightbot, provide the feeling of a lighthearted game, while teaching legitimate programming concepts, such as debugging, repeat loops, and procedures.

Sure, the Hour of Code aims to provide an intimidation-free start to a lifelong education, but how does that translate into a useful pathway once someone is hooked? Along with this computer science sea-change came dozens of options for a conscientious parent or teacher with no previous experience to provide their children a meaningful programming experience.

One such pathway might look like this:

  • Lightbot – A well-designed set of mazes present challenging logic problems, as you program your bot to turn off lights using computer science concepts such as loops and procedures.
  • CS Fundamentals (Course 1 or Course 2) – Program familiar characters, like the Angry Birds and Flappy, as you navigate your way through this full-featured early computer science course. Learn about sequencing, loops, debugging, and conditionals on your way toward creating a game that you can share with your friends.
  • The Foos Studio – Cute and friendly, this tutorial will lead you quickly through the user interface, then turn you loose to create games of your own. With guided drag-and-drop programming, the barrier to entry is extremely low, even for early-readers.
  • org Star Wars Tutorial – Though this series is only intended to last an hour, it’s a fantastic transition from the blocks that students have become comfortable with to the wide world of coding using written commands.
  • Code Combat – A great alternative to the previous youthful, block-based languages into the world of written code. Chose from current favorites like Python and JavaScript, or some more obscure options like CoffeeScript, Clojure, and Lua.
    • com – A brilliant lead-in to CodeSchool’s JavaScript Road Trip, this is a friendly step-by-step tutorial that introduces you to strings and other basic JavaScript elements.  Eventually graduating into videos and additional useful activities, CodeSchool is a wonderful place to start a JavaScript coding adventure.
  • Codecademy – As a gateway to many web-based languages, Codecademy continues what CodeSchool starts, walking students into data structures and object-oriented programming. By the end of this free JavaScript experience, students should be well-prepared to create text-based adventures and much more!

The day has passed where grown adults can get away with dismissing their lack of comfort with computers. Within the next five years, even grade school students will find themselves behind the curve without basic computer science education. As parents and teachers, now is the time to take the first steps toward understanding what’s out there. Thankfully, those steps can now happen one hour at a time.

Written by

Kiki is Education Program Manager at and a former computer science instructor at the University of Oregon. As a Member of Mensa and a past Chair of Women in Computer Science, she also writes for the Huffington Post, and has graced the cover of Open For Business magazine.

As a champion for responsible computing and equity in both CS employment and education, Kiki works with many organizations to improve the experience of girls and women in STEM. Her landmark work with the hands-on Traveling Circuits computer science curriculum helped Thinkersmith receive the 2013 Google RISE Award for excellence in Science and Engineering. She currently sits on the Advisory Board for Wonder Workshop Robotics, and is a vital member of the Leadership team for the Oregon Girls Collaborative Project.

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