Home » OPINION » Columns » HU MEENA — The Three Rs + C: Teaching computer code and critical thinking skills essential in 21st century

HU MEENA — The Three Rs + C: Teaching computer code and critical thinking skills essential in 21st century

HU MEENA

HU MEENA

What was the last Wikipedia rabbit trail you traveled down? For me, I found myself reading about Johannes Gutenberg. You know, the 14th century German printing press guy. Gutenberg arguably created the most important invention of the second millennium. With the printing press, Gutenberg played a key role in the dawn of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, the scientific revolution and he created a platform for today’s knowledge-based economy and the democratization of knowledge.

Why did the printing press change the world? Sure, it gave people more rapid access to vast libraries of existing manuscripts. This allowed ideas and knowledge once only accessible to the rich and scholarly to be shared by everyone.  But the printing press did more than cause a boom in literacy and make knowledge available to the masses.  It created the first ecosystem of knowledge. Now more people than ever before could contribute their innovative thoughts and ideas to the world’s library of knowledge and information. That’s what changed the world.

US stats on computer science facts

US stats on computer science facts

Fast forward to the 19th and 20th century industrial age.  Our parents and grandparents never sat around debating whether they should teach their children to read and write. Everyone agreed those skills were minimum table stakes, along with a college education, if our children were to have any chance of landing a better paying job and a higher standard of living.

Today we live in the 21st century and there is a new “ecosystem of knowledge”: it’s called computer software. But we aren’t teaching our kids how to contribute to it. Fifteen years ago we all saw the value in teaching young people computer literacy — that is: word processing, making a PowerPoint presentation, maybe a little about spreadsheet algorithms.

For some reason, though, we stopped there, and our children are missing out.  In 2013, some modern-day Gutenbergs of technology — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey — started advocating a simple message: kids, learn to code. In a video campaign by Code.org, an organization that lobbies for more computer science teaching in schools, various tech leaders addressed the urgent need for more software developers.

Learning coding skills means learning the language of computers and thus influencing the way those computers are changing our world. Knowing how to develop software suddenly puts an entirely new arsenal of skills at your disposal. This is a skill set that companies, even those outside the tech sector, are willing to pay top dollar for. If it sounds like all these jobs are taken, you’d be surprised.

Between 2014 and 2024, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that Software Development jobs are expected to grow at a rate of 17 percent while the average job growth for all other occupations is a mere 7 percent. According to Code.org, there are currently 617,999 job openings in computing nationwide. Last year, only 42,969 college students nationwide graduated with a degree in computer science.  In Mississippi, only 153 students received computer science diplomas, according to the Conference Board and the National Science Foundation. By 2024, the BLS predicts there will be over 1 million computer programming and IT-related job openings. These are jobs in every industry and every state, and the 2014 median salary was close to $100,000 a year.

In every corner of our state, Mississippians are innovating and competing on the national level. Let’s go even further. Let’s call on the leaders at our institutions of higher education to update the admissions requirements and allow computer science to count as a mathematics or science course. Even better, let’s make it a core graduation requirement. In K-12 education, let’s transform our vaguely defined “computer classes” into computer science courses with rigorous standards and job-market relevant coursework. As competitive as the job market has become, coding is transitioning from being just another hot buzzword to a “must-have” asset. My vision has always been that

Our region becomes a tech hub, a “Silicon South” if you will, where locally-based technology companies grow, prosper, innovate and pour into our regional economy. How incredible it would be if the primary source of talent for these companies is our own residents!

We have the opportunity to lead other states in what will certainly be the next major national movement. C Spire is committed to this movement and putting our region at the forefront of the future. We are a founding partner of the non-profit Base Camp Coding Academy in Water Valley. This is a year-long vocational training program in computer programming designed to teach minority youth the competitive job skills necessary to begin a career in tech. When they graduate from BCCA, these students will be able to walk through the door of virtually any company and compete for a computer programming job. They will have the skills necessary to be locally successful in the global marketplace. This is an investment in the future of Mississippi’s work force as well as the ultimate health of our economy.

It’s also an investment in young people, encouraging curiosity and resourcefulness, even in those who won’t write a single line of code in their careers. The fundamentals behind all the computer programming that ushered in our current Digital Revolution are two things: creative thinking and problem solving.

We don’t teach kids to read and write so they can all be professional readers or authors. We don’t teach them photosynthesis so they can all be botanists. We expose them to this knowledge and way of thinking so their full potential can be realized wherever their interests and skills take them. Gutenberg created a state-of-the-art platform that changed the course of human history. Now the state of the art is computer software, and I want to see what the next generation will do with it. The first code Bill Gates wrote was a program to play tic-tac-toe. He was 13.

If you’re intrigued by this topic and want to learn more from key leaders on the front lines of the coding movement, check out our most recent C Spire “Let’s Talk Tech” podcast.  Every month, this program explores the latest emerging technologies, the people behind them and how these trends affect the way we live, work and play.

» Hu Meena is president and CEO of C Spire, a Mississippi-based diversified telecommunications and technology services company

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