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Education

Google Engineer Says Vietnamese 11th Graders Know Enough Computer Science to Pass Their Interview Process

by Liz Dwyer

March 23, 2013

With 1 million more jobs than there are computer science students anticipated by 2020, learning computer programming is as essential for the 21st century workforce as learning to read or write. But here in the United States only 10 percent of K-12 schools even offer computer science classes, which means our kids aren't being set up for success.

That's a far cry from what's happening in Vietnam. Google engineer Neil Fraser, who works in the company's education department, recently headed there to check out how they're teaching computer science to students and the difference is pretty astounding. Fraser writes on his site Neil's News that Vietnamese kids begin basic programming lessons in second grade and in third grade, they start learning how to use Microsoft Windows and how to type. Depending on an individual school's access to technology, students here in the United States might learn the same thing at that age. But by fourth grade it's clear that American and Vietnamese kids are being put on different paths.

"By grade 4," writes Fraser, Vietnamese students, "start programming in Logo. Starting with sequences of commands, then progressing to loops." And "By grade 5 they are writing procedures containing loops calling procedures containing loops," he says.

Fraser also says 5th graders in Vietnam are so skilled, they can do the same programming 11th graders in the U.S. can do, which means that the 11th graders in Vietnam significantly outpace their American peers. Indeed, they're skilled enough, says Fraser, to succeed in Google's interview process.

So what's the problem here in the U.S. with getting coding taught in schools? Fraser says:

  • "School boards fight to keep CS out of schools, since every minute spent on CS is one less minute spent on core subjects like English and math. The students' test scores in these core subjects determine next year's funding, so CS is a threat.
  • Teachers often refuse to teach real CS because more often than not they don't understand it. Instead, they end up teaching word processing and website construction, while calling it CS.
  • Parents often oppose CS classes since the grade has no direct benefit on their child's academic prospects. This is compounded by a lack of understanding of the difference between their child playing video games and their child writing video games.
  • Students intentionally tune out of CS class since there are few things worse in American high school than being labelled a nerd."

Fraser says what he sees "in America is a prefect storm of opposition from every level." As a result, Google's "been spending enormous resources with frankly minimal impact."

We should absolutely be lobbying for computer science's inclusion in the K-12 academic curriculum—last year parents involved in Coding for Kids in the U.K. did just that. But since bureaucratic wheels can turn slowly—and we don't even have enough educators who are trained to teach computer science in schools—using some of the free resources on the web is the way to go. Platforms like Code Year, which features short, game-based, interactive lessons are teaching novices enough coding to build a website or game in just four weeks.

Of course, teaching kids how to code doesn't mean that we have to expect that every child will grow up to be a programmer. But by not teaching the vast majority of students how to code, we're denying them the ability to make the choice to pursue working in computer science. What's clear is that if we don't step up and take action, American kids will be, for the most part, mere consumers of technology instead of innovators and creators who use it to solve the challenges facing their communities.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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