Happy Computer Science Education Week! It is typically held in early December to correlate with the birthday of computing pioneer Admiral Grace Murray Hopper on December 9th and features the very popular Hour of Code.
As a parent, I know that computer science is important now, and it will be even more so in the future. As an English major, I know that I don’t feel overly comfortable helping my teen when it comes to computer science.
Mark Engelberg, former NASA researcher and computer science education advocate, understands me. He created //CODE programming board game series that teaches kids skills critical to coding but in an unplugged way that even non-computer savvy parents can play together. Here’s a Q&A with him about why computer science education is so important and what parents need to know:
You’re a vocal supporter of computer science education for kids. Could you tell me why you feel so strongly?
Parents and educators all want kids to become skilled at problem solving and critical thinking. Math, science, and the arts all help develop these skills, but computer science brings something special to the table.
Computer science teaches kids how to formulate problem solving steps with the precision of an algorithm, how to find patterns and abstractions that are shared across problems, how to collect and analyze data, how to build executable models and simulations, and how to do all these things on a massive scale.
This is what problem solving looks like in the 21st century, and kids who develop these skills possess a profound advantage.
What are some of the benefits to computer science education that you think are maybe a bit less obvious but still hugely important?
I think most people don’t realize that computer science can be paired with almost any interest, allowing kids to explore their passions more deeply.
I’ve seen kids write programs to extend their favorite games, to construct custom music playlists, to view molecules in virtual reality, to analyze their favorite books.
Most people think of computer science as being about programming for programming’s sake, but to me, it’s about empowering kids to apply computing technology to whatever subjects fascinate them.
What misconceptions about computer science would you like to correct? Feel free to bust some myths here.
A common misconception is that programming is primarily a solitary activity, only suited for people who prefer interacting with a computer over other human beings. But that’s the exception, not the rule.
Most problems are solved by people working as part of a team, and software engineers are highly valued for their ability to communicate effectively with their teammates and to explain how their programs work.
Some parents hear “computer science” and immediately think that they’re out of their league. How can any parent, regardless of experience with tech, help kids learn about the field and develop the skills that it requires?
As a first step, be sure to let your local school that it is important to you that they offer computer science.
But even if your school doesn’t offer it (sadly, many schools still do not), there are plenty of resources available, an endless supply of online books, videos, and interactive tutorials to learn from.
Many classrooms have had success locating a parent or volunteer from a local tech company who is willing to come in and help teach a CS course. If you ask around, chances are you can find someone — in no other field do you find professionals so willing to give their time to help pass on their knowledge to kids!
Along those lines, am I right that you’ve developed some games to help kids learn about computer science that are not played on computers? Are computers not required to learn about certain portions of computer science?
Yes. Two years ago, I created Code Master and this past summer, I developed the //CODE programming game series, a sequence of three new “unplugged” computer science games: On the Brink, Rover Control, and Robot Repair. Certainly learning the details of a programming language requires a computer to practice, but the underlying concepts can definitely be taught without a computer.
In fact, I think it can be an advantage to learn the fundamentals away from a computer — kids learn the most when they must play the role of the computer in their minds and physically act out their programs, rather than just clicking the “Run” button and passively watching what happens on the screen.
What do you hope those games that you created achieve?
I think when kids first try a computer science class, it can sometimes be intimidating because it’s a whole new way of thinking to which they are unaccustomed.
My hope is that by encountering these games early in life, they will learn these patterns of thinking in a playful way and computer science will begin to feel completely natural.
My objective is that I want every child who plays these games to be primed to have a successful, positive experience when they eventually try out a programming class later in life.
Some kids have tried a coding class or two and not loved it. How can parents encourage them not to give up on the field as a whole?
The important thing to remember is that there are many different programming languages, many different styles of teaching, and many different things you can do with programming.
For example, some approaches are better suited for students who love math and science, other approaches are better suited for students eager to create art and games, still other approaches cater to students who love to read and write.
Keep looking and you will eventually find a coding class that is enticing to your child.
Having begun his career as a virtual reality researcher at NASA, Mark Engelberg transitioned into game development and design at Salient, and is currently a professional puzzle designer and inventor of several award-winning logic puzzle toys.
Engelberg collaborates with research psychologists who need custom puzzles to study intelligence and cognition, often using computer algorithms to generate puzzles that rival the quality of hand-crafted puzzles. In addition to following his passion in puzzle-making, Engelberg enjoys teaching college-level math and computer science, and tutors some of the brightest young students in the greater Seattle area.
With over 25 years of experience with VR, game design, and programming, Engelberg looks forward to designing virtual experiences for the latest generation of VR technologies. Mark believes that computer science can and should be taught at an early age. He put these ideas into practice with his own son, who is now one of the youngest professional software engineers in the world.
Disclosure: I received the board games to check out. All opinions, and love of board games, are my own.
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