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The Art of Coding: Teaching the Next Generation of Coders

Many of today’s most in-demand skills at U.S. organizations are computer science-based, and coding tops the list.

However, industries across the globe have voiced their concern over the lack of tech skills among high-school and college graduates. Of course, every country has its own projections for coders: Some project a labor market job growth of around 20%, with others citing a rate closer to 50%. The problem: There are not enough people with the right skills to meet the high demand.

The skills gap is so large that students can almost walk out of school right into a highly lucrative career—with the right experience. However, despite the considerable skills gap, computer science remains an elective in most schools across the U.S. Too many students never consider one of the many computer science courses, simply because they feel it’s all about technology and science. What many students don’t realize is that career technical education (CTE) courses are not just for those wanting to be computer programmers and game developers.

Coding skills provide students a high level of tech literacy, opening access to a wide range of future-proofed career opportunities from fashion design to marine biology. These skills demonstrate to potential employers that a student is a problem-solver—someone who can see the bigger cause-and-effect picture. Potential employers recognize students with coding skills as global communicators; people who can communicate through a coding platform regardless of their language.

Many of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs all started their careers as coding developers: Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, to name just a few.

Reframing Career Technical Education

So, why is CTE still elective and why is the U.S. education system getting it so wrong? In my view, the issue lies in the way we present the computing-related electives.

When presented as a technical science, many students—particularly girls—jump to the conclusion that CTE isn’t for them, that it’s a boy’s job, or that it’s too hard and something for “techies.”

It’s important to help students realize the CTE-related skills that are growing in demand are not purely about hard coding, but increasingly about the soft skills. As Kevin Carlson, vice president of development at DataFinch Technologies, says, “I care most about an applicant’s ability to solve a problem, how they think through a task and communicate with those around them … this shows me how they’ll work with the team long-term. I couldn’t care less if they can pass a pop quiz on a certain technology.”

Successful website or game developers, system programmers and software engineers need to have empathy with the target audience, understanding their needs and preferences. Computer science is no longer just about science or math. I’m one of an increasing number of people who believe it also sits comfortably as an art.

Getting Creative With Code

Let me paint you a picture of how we’re addressing this issue at South Portland High School. It’s all based on how computer science—and particularly, coding—is perceived by our students.

Consider art class or creative writing: Whether students are picking up a pen to write a story or selecting a brush to paint, they can create something real that expresses their thoughts. Like painting or writing, computer programming is a form of self-expression that is accessible to virtually anyone. Programmers have a blank canvas and can fill it with something new and creative using a computer keypad.

Once a student appreciates that computer code is actually a tool for expression—in the form of websites, video games and music—and realize that the foundations of coding are based on creativity, we start to see a lot more students elect it as a course of study.

In my coding classes, each student develops a game. I start by asking students to consider the words that describe what they would like to create. When developing games, the students need to have a picture in their mind of how they want their characters and the game to look. Whether it is an adventure game, a fashion design game or a social networking site, they will start to realize that coding and game development is for everyone! One of my students even created their own dating app; they all find ways to create what interests them.

The next step is very art-based: creating the characters. Students enjoy creating the animations and characters within their game. My female students also really love solving problems and working with other students. Many tend to lean toward art and the design aspects, but they also love to dig into the puzzle of creating the algorithm.

Then, I set them to work on building their idea, with an endless number of ways to get there.

Julie working with a student on a tabletFigure 1. Julie York (right) helping a student.

Using the Right Software

Many students arrive at our school with coding experience in Scratch. However, fully block-based programs have limitations. As students progress from 8th to 9th grade, it is common for them to start to grow out of block-based programming. Equally, text-based coding programs such as JavaScript and Unity can feel too complex and daunting. As a result, a lot of students drop out.

So, what’s the solution? We’ve found that game development programs like Construct 3—which offers both block- and text-based programming—help students transition through the stages of development. The platform is also used by organizations like NASA, so it’s an ideal way for students to learn through a program they might use in their career.

Thankfully, Construct 3 offers highly functional free licences; we have only recently upgraded to the fee-paying version. It’s on the web, so it’s easy to use in school and at home.

Inspiring the Next Generation

Framing coding and programming as an art rather than a technical science creates an opportunity to reach students that may have previously been uninterested or afraid to explore coding.  Today, I have more students than I’ve ever had before, especially girls. As educators, it’s our duty to inspire the next generation to problem-solve like developers and equip them with the tools they need to grow and excel—and changing the way we define coding and game development is proving to be highly effective.