Imagine a classroom of wriggly five-year-olds coaxing lines of code out of 1:1 tech devices as a weekly component of kindergarten instruction.
Three self-described STEM advocates, Ayeola Boothe Kinlaw of 100Kin10, Ioannis Miaoulis of Boston’s Museum of Science, and Ruthie Chen Ousley of Teach for America, say kindergarten lessons could be going that way. The trio recently published an op-ed in U.S. News and World Report stressing the significance of early learning related to engineering.
"We believe the best way to prepare children for success is to introduce them to the engineering design skills that will give them experience solving problems," they wrote. "Engineering is the missing link, making math and science relevant and sparking a process that can lead to innovation."
Their takeaway advice?
Start engineering and technology instruction as early as possible.
For girls, that's especially important. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) research has shown that the achievement and confidence gap between girls and boys in science and math begins widening at ages 9 and 10.
Other studies have reportedly shown that by the age of 12, girls begin to "like" math and science less.
Across the nation, more elementary schools are trying to incorporate computer science (CS) and STEM learning in K-12 classrooms, while coding students are getting younger. In San Francisco, CS initiatives start with children in preschool.
But getting schools on board with CS can be a tall order.
An August 2015 Gallup poll underwritten by Google showed that 90% of parents think that having their children learn computer science is a good use of time, and 66% believe coding should be a mandatory subject.
At the same time, a reported 75% of principals reported their schools didn't offer any computer science, coding or programming classes.
"When 91% of parents want their children to learn CS and only 8% of administrators believes there is demand from parents, there's clearly an issue somewhere," TechCrunch author Frederic Lardinois noted last August.
Various benefits exist when it comes to teaching kids to code. Mitch Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT Media Lab, says that one key aspect is students are enabled to do more than just use new technologies. They also create them.
His popular TED talk on the subject has garnered more than 1.3 million views.
Although careers in tech or STEM fields aren't right for everyone, advocates argue that CS and STEM skills can also encourage creativity and innovation, as well as critical thinking that can be applied across school subjects, and later, industries.
Cullen White, director of Teach For America's Computer Science Initiative, says the introduction of the Obama administration’s White House Computer Science For All (#CSForAll) initiative marks a turning point in U.S. education.
"A new day for computer science education has dawned; it is times like this that beg for both reflection and visioning," White wrote recently in TechCrunch. "Unfortunately, too many students — especially those from low-income areas — don't have access to computer science courses in their schools."
That's because teaching coding requires resources like access to reliable internet connections and tech devices like laptops, tablets or computer labs, which can be expensive.
Some districts are finding ways to navigate the budget hurdles and bring STEM instruction into the classroom. In the suburban Chicago school district Community Unit District 300 (CUD 300), located in Algonquin, a new initiative is underway to transform existing computer labs in all 17 of the district's elementary schools into more elaborate STEM classrooms.
Students will reportedly spend one hour every other week for "hands-on discovery learning" in the new labs.
"Officials have set aside $198,000 for next year's roll out of STEM labs, which includes the cost of furniture, equipment and supplies," the Daily Herald reported. "The district will be adding 8.5 full-time equivalent elementary STEM teaching positions — a $522,241 cost — and officials are designing the curriculum now.”
Other districts aren't as fortunate, and face tough fiscal choices when it comes to funding certain areas. A boost for computer science can potentially mean scaling back other programs, like foreign language or social studies.
Still, many remain optimistic. A plethora of no- or low-cost online opportunities can help cash-strapped districts and educators looking to incorporate more CS and STEM in K-12 classrooms.
Boston's Engineering is Elementary pilot program provides online curricula and professional development for teachers looking to hone their CS and STEM teaching skills. Public-private partnerships, like Microsoft's $75 million YouthSpark initiative, are one way for schools to incorporate CS, and nonprofits like Code.org have partnered with hundreds of schools and thousands of teachers to help provide CS instruction, with some curricula specifically aimed at elementary school students.