Why our kids should learn coding

Back in the early 1980s, I had a mind-expanding experience. It wasn’t because of Pac-Man, Van Halen or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Back in the early 1980s, I had a mind-expanding experience. It wasn’t because of Pac-Man, Van Halen or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

A new kid showed up at F.H. Collins, fresh off the plane from Texas. At first he seemed like just another new kid. Then, we found out he had an Apple II+ computer. Even more, he knew how to use it. He was a wizard at coding in Basic, could hack copy-protected computer game disks and — perhaps most interesting of all — seemed surprised that there wasn’t really an Apple scene in Whitehorse.

Back in California and Texas, the personal computer revolution was in full flight. Everyone seemed to be coding, building gadgets and playing Castle Wolfenstein.

I was recently talking to a few guys (and they were predominantly guys — more on that in a minute) who remembered those days hanging around in the TRS-80 lab after school. One of them runs his own IT company now. Another codes for six months a year, and sails and travels the rest of the time. One of them installs fibre-optic networks around the world. A fourth ended up as CEO of a financial software company.

Even those of us who didn’t go into the industry look back fondly on those clunky looking terminals. They taught you a lot about logic, problem solving and creativity. Lots of people don’t associate creativity with coding, but when you are creating virtual things the only thing holding you back is your imagination (and the Apple II+’s laughably small 48 kilobytes of RAM).

You also ended up with a solid understanding of how computers and software work, something that turns out to be very handy whether you are in business, government or running a non-profit.

Our younger selves would be surprised by much of today’s world (your phone has literally a million times more memory than my Apple II+). One thing would be how absent coding is from school, more than three decades after the Apple II+ came out.

A poll by Google and Gallup reported in Wired magazine said that less than half of principals and superintendents said their school board thought computer science was important.

Ask your favourite Yukon teenager if computer science is offered in their school. They may be able to learn how to use Word, draw something in a computer drafting class or edit smartphone videos on an iMac. But there probably isn’t a course where they can learn how to code in C, Java and HTML, or create a smartphone app in iOS or Android. Nor are they likely to have a simple hardware course to choose, where they can use things like the $50 Raspberry Pi device to experiment with circuits and basic robotics.

This is a missed opportunity for our youth. Computers are increasingly central to everything we do. And while some hear the word computer and think about huge and money-grubbing global corporations, computers are also enabling a huge surge in local creativity and problem-solving.

Check out YukonBaby in the Apple app store, for example. It offers Yukon “pregnancy resources in your pocket” and looks like an incredibly helpful support tool for expecting Yukoners. Or consider Alastair Smith’s work to create a digital ski pole in the Yukon that will enable athletes to track their performance.

It’s important to expose our kids to computers early. I recently spoke to a young Yukoner who went into first-year engineering at university, and was surprised to find most of the class already seemed comfortable with coding. This Yukoner started far down the learning curve, and found it very hard to catch up.

The economics podcast Planet Money has reported on how big an impact this kind of bump in the road can have. Back in 1980, between a quarter and a third of the students in law, science, computer science and physical sciences were female. By 2010, this figure had risen to almost half for all these fields except computer science.

By 2010, female students were a dramatically smaller percentage of computer science classes than they had been in 1980: from around 30 per cent to under 20 per cent.

Planet Money hypothesized that it was because so many boys were given Apple II+ machines in the 1980s. Apple ads tended to show boys at the keyboard. So first year computer science went from a shared introduction, to a world where the male half of the class already had five years of computers and the girls were way behind.

This is how vicious circles get started.

So it is very promising now that there is a huge surge in coding initiatives aimed at all genders and age groups. President Obama has pledged US$4 billion to bring computer science to US schools. In Britain, the BBC is giving all Year 7 children the new micro:bit device for school. The CEO of Apple is pushing the new SWIFT language, including in kid-friendly iPad versions. It’s very visual and easy to use. Not only can nine-year-olds master it, but their parents have a chance too.

Closer to home, the B.C. government has announced plans to add coding to the curriculum, which happens to be the one Yukon students learn too.

Coding won’t solve all the world’s problems. Some of the claims made by pro-coding educators verge on science fiction. But I am pretty sure that Yukon kids will be much better prepared for the future if they have at least some exposure to coding. And who knows what great things they might invent by the time the rest of us are in the seniors’ home in Whistle Bend?

Some Yukon youth have already had the chance to get into coding. As you may have read in the News a few weeks ago, for example, Code:mobile came to the Yukon and offered free workshops in HTML and website design.

But we should make a bigger and more concerted push on the coding front. This involves getting ahead of the B.C. coding curriculum. The Yukon boasts fantastic high-school outdoor education, drama and sports programs. We should put some money and effort into training teachers, getting the right labs set up, and signing up as many kids as we can.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won last year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist.