Developing Solvers, Not Hackers

04/22/2013 02:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2013

Last week, the New York Times' Dealbook blog profiled Girls Who Code, an organization that attempts to close the gender gap in the technology industry by teaching young women a basic job skill -- how to write code.

The piece is completely on target, and Girls Who Code does impressive work in making computer science more relevant and exciting to girls. Women have made significant progress in the business world over the past few decades, yet we are still facing an obvious gender gap in the technology industry. Perhaps the root of the problem is in how we teach students about computer programming.

Historically, the culture around computer science has been all about competition -- "Who will be the first to hack the code?" Students and teachers alike approach coding like a competitive sport, rather than an opportunity to be creative in designing a solution to a problem. Coding becomes an end in itself, as opposed to a means to make something better or invent something new. Instead, we should be teaching students that successful programmers, as the article says, tell the computer what to do for them, not the other way around.

This is not just a gender issue; it's also an issue about the future and our competitiveness. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 65 percent of today's schoolchildren will end up at jobs that have not even been invented yet. Only 5 percent of U.S. workers are currently in the science or engineering sectors, yet they provide more than 50 percent of our economic expansion. There are at least two million technical jobs that are unfilled, and that number is expected to swell to 10 million by the end of the decade.

In my view, it's less about welcoming girls into the "brogrammer" club and more about broadening participation in STEM for young people in general, since that's where the need is so urgent and where the opportunities so abundant.

Students engage most readily with STEM when they get first-hand understanding of how it impacts their lives. Making STEM relevant and inclusive will not just erase the gender gap; it will also make our entire workforce more capable and competitive.