By Tessa Raebeck
Coding, or computer programming, for which there is an abundance of jobs but a lack of workers with the requisite skills, may be incorporated into all levels of the curriculum in Sag Harbor’s schools if Superintendent Katy Graves has her wish. At the Board of Education’s meeting on Monday, November 3, Ms. Graves said she intends for Pierson High School to offer an elective in coding by the next school year, as well as an extra-curricular coding club—as a start.
According to the Conference Board, a global, independent business research association, there is a demand exceeding the supply of available workers of more than 15 percent for computing jobs in New York State, while in all other jobs, the demand surplus is less than 5 percent. In a presentation to the board, school personnel and a small audience, Ms. Graves emphasized that there are far more jobs in coding than there are skilled laborers to fill them.
“At least for the foreseeable future, if you have skills in coding, you’re going to be employable,” she said.
A 2010 to 2012 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics said the United States is adding over 130,000 jobs a year in computing across all industries, and a study by the Georgetown University Center of Education revealed that over 60 percent of those computing jobs are outside the tech sector. Yet the National Science Foundation estimates that less than 2.4 percent of college students—about 40,000 annually—graduate with a degree in computer science.
“This is the biggest explosion of jobs—and these are not low-paying jobs,” Ms. Graves said.
Despite the increase in students’ access to technology, the number of computer science graduates across the country has actually declined in the last decade.
“Now, since children are born with an iPad in their crib, we don’t usually give them computer classes anymore,” explained Ms. Graves. “So, actually our exposure—exposing children to computers—has gone down, so children thinking of that as a career has gone down as well… we’re not even exposing kids, so kids don’t even think of [computer programming] necessarily as a job.”
New York is one of 25 states where students can count computer science for credit toward high school graduation. The New York State Department of Education does not recognize computer science as a “core” class, but Ms. Graves said programming could be offered as an elective through the math or science departments.
“If we expose children to coding and to computer software, we’re also teaching them computational thinking,” Ms. Graves added, supporting her position with recent editorials in The Guardian and The New York Times that argue coding is not only a hands-on way for students to learn the language of computers, but also teaches them a new way to think about the world, breaking down complex problems into smaller, more manageable steps.
The administrators and board appeared to support Ms. Graves’s belief that coding is a significant piece of a well-rounded contemporary education. In a separate presentation the same evening, which Ms. Graves said she did not collaborate on, Pierson math teacher Jason LaBatti updated the board on the computer-programming course he teaches, which is part of the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum.
Mr. LaBatti, a graduate of Pierson who has been teaching math at his alma mater since 2003, said that in the past, he had many students who went out on their own, taking the initiative to teach themselves coding in the absence of a programming class at school.
“Finally, we made that happen,” he said of his students’ demand for a course. Pierson currently has two computer science classes that are available to IB students; one is 150 hours, the other is 240 hours.
The district has been steadily increasing students’ access to technology in all grades since computers were first introduced to classrooms, and administrators seemed confident Sag Harbor has sufficient laptops and internet access to further implement coding into its curriculum.
Mr. LaBatti said the Smartboard and 25 Macbook laptops he now has in his classroom make “teaching this concept, this whole technology, very, very easy.” He would like to see all students graduate from Pierson with the ability to “design a website from the ground up,” he said.
With most of the technology already in place, Ms. Graves said the financial considerations of implementing a comprehensive coding program would be minimal.
“The curriculum that is supplied is absolutely free of charge,” she said of the program she intends to use, which is offered by Code.org, a non-profit website, funded by top tech personnel like Bill Gates and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, that aims to expand participation in computer science and teach every American student how to code. Launched in 2013, Code.org has a curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade, with instructions, videos, and interactive lessons school districts can use for free.
“The only investment by the district is teaching,” said Ms. Graves, adding that math and science teachers usually instruct computer courses.
“You start out with a small dedicated group and a teacher that’s willing to take on a fairly daunting task,” she said. “We also want to do, if we can, a coding club because that gives us more chance for exposure.”
Pierson Principal Jeff Nichols said a fifth of a teacher’s schedule would be required to implement a high school elective, which is how the district would begin to expand computer-programming opportunities. The school would also offer a coding club as an optional extra-curricular activity after school.