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If The US Wants To Keep Its Technological Edge, Schools Must Teach Coding

We've come far since 1999.

That year, Keanu Reeves and the Wachowskis electrified audiences with "The Matrix," which cast Reeves as a virtual bodhisattva, a mystic who could manipulate the ones and zeros of computer code at will for the betterment of the human race.

It marked a turning point in cinema and culture: Wizards and heroes weren't just for the fantasy genre anymore. Now they could be computer hackers performing their sorcery from behind a monitor and keyboard.

It all fit in nicely with British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke's famous "third law": "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Now a former Yahoo executive-turned-lawmaker, Democratic State Sen. Jeremy Ring of Florida, wants to enact concrete plans to demystify technology for a new generation of American kids. Ring introduced a bill that would let students take computer coding classes instead of courses in a second language, like Spanish or French.

That's because coding is a second language, Ring pointed out.

“This is a global language today,” Ring said on Feb. 3, reports the Christian Science Monitor. “Computers and programming have become part of our global culture."

Most consumers who have cellphones or home computers have seen the familiar Java install screen, which boasts that more than 3 billion devices currently run the programming language. That's not hyperbole. Old computer languages like C++ still form the backbone of millions of machines, while newer languages, like Python and Ruby, promise to take code into the future.

But if you look at the curriculums in American public schools, you'd think coding was a language spoken by some far-off indigenous tribe. Coding is something rarely mentioned, let alone taught: A majority of students in the U.S. do not take a single computer science course during the formative years between kindergarten and high school graduation, according to Fortune magazine.

Only 14 percent of computer science majors are women, according to the Computing Research Association; 3 percent of IT majors are African-American, and 7 percent are Hispanic.

Perhaps most worrying, American students aren't the ones earning diplomas from science and technology programs in American universities. The majority of graduate students studying science and technology in the U.S. are foreign-born, according to U.S. News & World Report.

All that adds up to what experts are calling a brain drain, which is reflected in American students' dismal scores in standardized mathematics and science tests. It has educators and politicians worried, and executives at American tech firms increasingly looking overseas to fill high-paying IT jobs.

If we want to narrow that gap, and ensure that the U.S. retains its competitive edge -- and remains the center of technological innovation -- it's crucial to get kids started early. Unfortunately, not everyone recognizes that.

"Coding is arguably what welding was 100 years ago," Barmak Nassirian, director of federal policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, told Reuters. "Let's not get carried away."

Someone tell Nassirian that welders never invented instantaneous global communication. Welding never led to near-miraculous medical advances. It never allowed doctors to model diseases, or gave astrophysicists the raw brain power to sift through data on billions of star systems. Welding won't let you print anything your heart desires in 3-D; it won't get you to the airport by triangulating your location with GPS satellites; it won't help with the early detection of cancer; it won't help predict the spread of diseases like the Zika virus.

While America's aging bureaucrats and education policymakers don't get it, kids do. Kids like 16-year-old Brooke Stewart, who told Reuters she'd love the opportunity to study computer languages in school.

"You can translate languages across the Internet through coding, but you can't do that without coding," Stewart said.

This is an issue that has an immeasurable impact on education, technical fluency, job prospects for young Americans, and the country's role as a technology leader across the globe. If U.S. policymakers want to make sure America remains at the forefront of innovation and greatness in the future, they should get their heads out of the sand and start listening to folks like Ring.

Including coding in public school curriculums is long past due.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: Christian Science Monitor, Reuters, Fortune, Arthur C. Clarke Foundation, US News & World Report / Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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