Why investments in computer science education need data at their core

An understanding of coding at its rudimentary level isn’t all about enriching Silicon Valley. It’s about giving our kids the tools to maneuver in the modern world, the building blocks of these otherwise esoteric concepts, and the ability to contribute to what it looks like.

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STEM education – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – is near and dear to my heart. In fact, it was my STEM education that shaped me into the leader and businesswoman I am today. But everyday math and science has advanced to encompass concepts like data science and computer programming, and that means our educational fundamentals should advance along with them.

So, I was pleased to see that last month, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Salesforce pledged $300 million to support an initiative in partnership with the Trump administration to foster computer science education and prepare students for careers in technology.

These same ubiquitous tech giants – Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Salesforce have also invested in an industry-backed organization called Code.org which provides free coding lessons and related educational resources. And in June Apple CEO Tim Cook told president Trump, “Coding should be a requirement in every public school” in order to solve the dearth of computer programming skills in this country.

The new fundamentals?

I think Cook is right. Today we have college students graduating without a fundamental knowledge of coding or data, despite the fact that these are the building blocks of how we navigate the world around us. For a long time now I’ve believed that college graduates, whether Computer Science, English Lit or Design majors, should leave school with a basic understanding of coding and data the same way they are taught math fundamentals.

Some have their reservations about these sorts of industry-led efforts. They worry that the companies funding them are only serving their own interests to ensure that they have a plentiful workforce. Or, even more self-serving, that they want to ensure that children learn their branded programming languages or use their software and devices during their formative years.

But the fact is the need is out there – and more and more, so is the desire. At the Mobile Future Forward conference held in Seattle in September, I spoke with a university professor who told me that his machine learning class once attracted only around 40 students, but today it’s topping 400. People taking these classes in machine learning and artificial intelligence – the fields leading the cutting-edge wave of tomorrow’s technologies – are attractive to employers who are scrambling to hire employees who understand these concepts.

Igniting the natural spark of interest starts now

Let’s remember, people don’t start out as sophisticated adults wanting to learn AI. Where they start is as children with a natural curiosity in how the world around them – the increasingly computer science and data-driven world around them – works. Maybe they like video games or mobile apps and want to learn how to make their own. Maybe they love to draw comics and want to understand how to bring them to life through animation. These are the sparks that ignite inchoate interest and imagination, which might one day be the flames of tomorrow’s CGI or AI or machine learning talent pool.

Data-centric technologies such as autonomous vehicles and voice-activated devices are emerging, and are just a few years away from truly pervading our day-to-day lives. A knowledge of how data systems work and interconnect, how natural language is processed and parsed by these systems, will be at the core of what a growing number of companies – in tech, manufacturing and beyond -- will need from our kids as they continue their educational pathways.

An understanding of coding at its rudimentary level, the foundation being laid by the Trump administration’s new initiative and that of these tech giants isn’t all about enriching Silicon Valley. It’s about giving our kids the tools to maneuver in the modern world, the building blocks to conceive of these otherwise esoteric concepts, the ability to contribute to what it looks like. The future of our country’s industry, from manufacturing to agriculture, will be propelled by data, machine learning and AI.

The downside of our children being left back without basic knowledge of computer science, coding and data science is too great to let political disagreements or concerns about tech behemoth takeovers get in the way of the core principles behind the mission.

Let’s support efforts that support opportunities for our children and tomorrow’s workforce.

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