It was a computer race pitting cartoon horse against cartoon human, and Faith Davis was grasping the “reins,” so to speak. She was manipulating the screen in front of her.
Faith and her third-grade peers in Erin Stankus’ class each set up a pole-position race on the computers inside their South Central Elementary classroom. The project is part of Code to the Future, an ambitious computer science coding program that was introduced to Canon-McMillan grade-schoolers at the beginning of the academic year.
With the demand for computer science employees expected to seriously outstrip supply by decade’s end, Code to the Future strives to prepare young students for jobs that not only would eventually alleviate an anticipated void, but lead to potentially lucrative careers. The program is comprehensive and gaining momentum across the nation, and is now being used by kindergartners through fourth-graders at Canon-Mac – the first district in Pennsylvania to adopt the initiative.
Students showed off their expertise during an assembly Tuesday at South Central Elementary that attracted an audience of about 40, which included education officials, public officials, administrators, community members and media. The youngsters displayed the skills they developed – in many instances, perfected – over three months, with races, mazes and Lego robots they built.
The adoption process hasn’t been easy, though. Faculty members, uncertain about what training would be needed before classes began in August, had to embrace this program first, then transfer it to students who were largely computer-literate but unaware of what would be ahead.
Take Faith. She is an articulate student, but asked whether the new program was easy to learn, she responded with the smiling, unfiltered honesty expected of one her age: “Actually, no. ... There is all of this coding you have to learn.”
Stankus, Faith’s teacher, admitted learning the program and passing it on to students was tedious at times, but the end result was positive.
“I love it. The key is I have to work at (the students’) speed instead of them working at mine,” Stankus said.
Second-grade teacher Christine Asbury, whose master’s degree is technologically related, said it is gratifying to see students who may not be strong readers or math students succeed in digital applications. Code to the Future, she said, “puts learning in (the students’ hands). They are empowered. Giving them that power is amazing.”
Michael Daniels agreed. “Teachers become facilitators. They step back and watch the students,” the Canon-McMillan superintendent said.
He opened the proceedings Tuesday by outlining the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ projection that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million new computer science jobs, but just 400,000 qualified students to fill them.
“That is a 1 million job gap,” Daniels said. “Someone had to take the lead, and Canon-McMillan took the lead. You hit students early with a new language and it’s easier to learn as they go on.
“This is a universal program, for sure. And it may be a pathway out of poverty for some.”
Jacob Makuvire, vice president of California-based Code to the Future, said about 95 school districts are involved with his program, which has yet to be deployed in Ohio or West Virginia. Locations are in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Midwest, Texas and the West Coast.
Makuvire said Canon-Mac was selected first in Pennsylvania because of its “progressive and strong leadership.” Daniels and Michelle Tomichek, South Central’s principal, are pleased to be part of the present and future of Code to the Future.
“We don’t mind seeing students in the back of the room, working on something or talking about coding,” he said. “We want these students learning skill sets that will make them employable in the future.”
Tomichek said, simply but definitively, “This is something that should happen everywhere.”