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The importance of early exposure to STEM fields

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Chloe Girvan is not tech-savvy.

The 41-year-old freelance writer and former lawyer never developed an affinity for computers.

Growing up in the 1970s and '80s in Ontario and California, she thought her children could also get by as long as they had a strong tennis game, manners and good grades. That’s until this summer, when one of her daughter’s experience in coding camp served her humble pie, as she puts it.

“It was finally clear to me that computer education is a must for (kids),” said Girvan, who lives in Montreal.

Every child, no matter a career path, is going to need a fundamental level of technological competence. According to the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), the need for stronger science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills applies to both STEM and non-STEM occupations.

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) says U.S. industries will lack one million STEM graduates over the next eight years, and according to the White House’s TechHire Initiative, there are more than 500,000 unfilled jobs in information technology alone.

And a host of other studies show children need to be exposed early.

How early is early enough? Toward the end of elementary school, according to the Council of Canadian Academies. That’s when children’s attitudes about STEM get formed. This matters because having early expectations for a career increases the chances of completing a college degree in that field. In other words: Early exposure to science topics is important for a student’s career aspirations.

A burgeoning industry of informal learning environments can help children whose school doesn’t offer computer science: so-called coding camps teach youth from 7 to 18 the intricacies of the computer age.

Richard Simms is part of the early tech education movement. The energetic 30-year-old from Atlanta, Georgia, runs Kids Code, a coding camp teaching 8- to 12-year-olds fundamental programming skills (HTML, CSS and Ruby) in free five-week courses. Their five locations — in Atlanta, Raleigh, Charlotte, New Orleans and Dallas — reach about 450 teenagers per year.

“Ten years from now, you could be pretty limited by at least not having a high-level understanding of how the web and coding works,” Simms said.

The importance of early exposure

Simms founded Tech Talent South in 2013 as an “alternative education startup.” Together with his business partner, Betsy Hauser, whom he met at a coding camp, Simms bootstrapped the company by touring around the Southeast organizing coding summer camps for children. Now, studying with the kids programs, Tech Talent South, is free, and the revenue comes from their 13 adult classes ranging in price from $500 for a three-night workshop to $6,750 for an eight-week, full-time code immersion program. “We’re big believers in getting kids early exposure. A lot of our adults students actually volunteer and help out with our kids coding sessions. It’s also good PR for us,” Simms said.

So what exactly is coding? At a very basic level, coding means developing and implementing instructions to make a computer perform a task or solve a problem. Websites, mobile apps, software — the entire digital world consists of code.

But not all code is the same. Applications and demand vary greatly among the several hundred existing programming languages. According to Course Report, a company which provides information about the coding school industry, graduates who learned Python in boot camp, a programming language used to integrate tasks, earn around $80,000 a year in jobs such as full stack developers, compared to $38,000 for those who chose to get up to speed in Java during the camp and work as, for instance, software engineers or front-end developers. At 71 percent, learning Microsoft’s C Sharp (C#), which is used by many enterprise companies, has the highest placement rate among all programming languages.

Coding is not just about learning a technical skill, and not every child or teenager who goes through a coding camp will become an engineer or IT specialist. Different learners will eventually express different attitudes and aptitudes for STEM. Yet, even a basic understanding of coding helps children acquire skills necessary to support more complex mathematical engagement and understanding, the Council of Canadian Academies reports. In other words: Coding helps children become more digitally literate and develop computational thinking, both loosely defined terms that encompass problem-solving, programming and analytical thinking.

“Probably 95 percent of our kids won’t be developers,” said Simms, who attended the first-ever White House Tech Meetup in April. “What matters is what kind of pathways and opportunities it opens up to get them that exposure early on and make this stuff approachable.”

A curious finding of the Course Report study illustrates this: Undergraduate music majors saw the greatest salary jump after attending a boot camp while foreign-language majors are most likely to be employed as developers after completing a coding boot camp. The Course Report co-founder, Liz Eggleston, says this peculiarity might have something to do with the similarity between picking up a new instrument or a new language and learning the syntax of a new programming language. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should major in music or foreign languages if you want a technology job. Likewise, the mission of early STEM education and coding boot camps is not to churn out as many software developers as possible. Rather, it is to help children develop an affinity and a basic competency that will help them in the future, no matter if they become conductors, interpreters or pursue a career in biomedical engineering.

“Digital literacy and computer science are unbelievably critical issues,” said Jennifer Flanagan, the co-founder and CEO of Actua, a Canadian non-profit teaching underrepresented and underserved youth STEM skills. Flanagan speaks with a sense of urgency about early tech education.

“If kids get left behind, they’re not just left behind from specific careers, they’re left behind from basically every career,” Flanagan said. Actua, a charitable organization, has been engaging Canadians aged six to 16 through teacher workshops, summer camps, after-school and weekend programs for the past 21 years.

As parents, members of the public and consumers, these children will also need fundamental STEM knowledge and skills to make informed decisions beyond the workplace when it comes to environmental regulation, health-care and nutrition, according to the NSTC.

A continent-wide trend

Coding camps for youth are a part of the rising coding boot-camp movement that has attracted a lot of attention. According to Course Report, there are now close to 200 full-time boot camps across North America, some of them with multiple locations. A recent Course Report graduate survey found that female graduates earn salaries $10,000 higher than men, alumni have a 38 percent (or $18,000) increase in salary, and 89 percent of graduates are placed within 120 days of graduation.

Liz Eggleston co-founded Course Report in 2013 as a step-by-step guide on how to find the right boot camp by publishing statistics, reviews, directories and other pertinent resources. For the graduate report, the New York City-based company surveyed 665 graduates from 44 institutions.

The popularity of coding camps for children and teenagers doesn’t come as a surprise given the poor track record of STEM education in American public schools. The U.S. Department of Education reports too little access to STEM teaching and a lack of interest among students for a career path in these subjects. Among industrialized nations, the U.S. ranks 29th in math and 22nd in science. And just last week, the U.S. Education Department reported that mathematical skills of American students have dropped for the first time since 1990.

In Estonia and other countries, such as the UK and Australia, school children learn coding beginning at age 7.

While coding schools for youth are almost always free, the rule of thumb for adult boot camps is 11 by 11: an average boot camp costs $11,000 and lasts around 11 weeks. Course Report expects more than 16,000 U.S.-American and Canadian graduates this year, up from less than 7,000 in 2014. The typical boot-camper, according to Course Report, is 31 years old, has 7.6 years of work experience, at least a Bachelor's degree and has never worked as a programmer.

Different institutions, different roles

Witnessing her daughter’s “transformative” experience turned Chloe Girvan into a believer in early tech education. “The exposure at the camps teaches them technical skills and builds their confidence," she said. "At home, we encourage our kids to build a treehouse in the backyard with a pile of wood, a nail and a hammer. That gives them the freedom to be creative and make mistakes. It’s especially important for girls.”

“Existing stereotypes send girls negative messages about who can and cannot do science,” Actua CEO Flanagan said. “They also have fewer female role models who encourage them to tinker, play and take things apart.”

Hannah Johnston is one of those much-needed role models. The 30-year-old UX designer attended an Actua program called Virtual Ventures in 1998. Later, she became a camp instructor and now works for Google. “Having more role models leads to a positive reinforcement cycle,” Johnston said. “More diversity of opinions and ideas shows that technology is for everyone.”

This improved perception of their ability to participate in STEM can heighten children’s interest and allow them to develop positive attitudes toward STEM topics, according to the National Science and Technology Council.

While women are underrepresented at universities and in the industry, coding camp numbers are more balanced. Almost 40 percent of the young coders at Tech Talent South’s Free Kids Code programs and more than a third of all participants in Actua’s week-long co-ed camps in 2014 were girls.

Coding camps alone, however, aren’t enough for a disinterested child to become a techie.

“Getting kids interested and familiar with coding is great,” said Kelly Lyons, an IT professor at the University of Toronto. “But there needs to be opportunities for someone who gets hooked at these schools to then turn them into a future career.”

The place to capitalize on these opportunities are schools, says Flanagan.

“It’s the single best mechanism to keep kids engaged, because that’s where they spend the most time. We need to make sure that students get ongoing support there.”

The findings in the NSTC’s five-year strategic plan on STEM education supports this statement. It says opportunities need to be available for children and adults both in the classroom and in out-of-school settings, because this kind of engagement is “critical to the learning process and to selection and persistence in STEM careers.”

Benjamin is a journalist and Global Journalism Fellow covering media innovation, startups and tech at the Munk School at the University of Toronto.

My online portfolio: https://benjaminbathke.contently.com/

My Twitter handle: @BenjaminBathke