06/19/2013 02:13 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2013

Coding to Learn: the 21st Century Curriculum


Innovation, STEM education, 21st century learning. As educators, it's our job to embrace these concepts, not reject them. K-12 educators in particular need to incorporate 21st century concepts into curriculums to make skills like computer programming an essential part of the student experience. As I've written before and will say again, innovation is key when it comes to preparing our students for the new economy.

I've been Head of Beaver Country Day School since 1992, and I've watched our school evolve in many ways over those two decades. In 1998, we started offering a computer programming elective. In 2009, we transitioned to a 1:1 laptop environment. And in 2013, we are integrating computer programming into our core curriculum by teaching students to write code through our math classes.

Beginning this fall, Beaver's math teachers will use a discovery-based approach that enables students to explore geometric concepts through coding. By taking an integrated approach to computer programming, all students will learn to write code before they graduate. At Beaver, innovation is not a buzzword -- it's part of our institutional DNA.

And we're not alone. Articles are written virtually every week on the importance of teaching coding in schools (see: The Atlantic, The New York Times, Fast Company, The Boston Globe ... and the list goes on). The YouTube video "What Most Schools Don't Teach" has received more than 10 million views, with the star power of tech visionaries like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey endorsing teaching computer programming in U.S. schools. Microsoft is spearheading a program aimed to get high school students hooked on computer science, in the hopes that they'll eventually pursue careers in the field.

While computer programming is certainly gaining momentum, it's not new. According to federal labor data, companies every year need to fill an estimated 150,000 computer science and mathematics related jobs; but colleges and universities in the U.S. only graduate around 100,000 students annually with degrees in those areas. We must begin teaching computer programming earlier in students' lives if we want them to continue studying these subjects in college.

In our entrepreneurship class, the most consistent piece of advice students received from our guest speakers was to learn to code. Students armed with basic coding skills exhibit elevated levels of thinking, enhanced creativity and improved research skills. And best of all, coding skills enable students to build projects on their own as soon as the light bulb turns on -- eliminating the need for additional help.

The true question at hand is not whether or not schools should integrate computer programming into their curriculum; we already know the answer to that. The question is how to successfully make computer programming a core component of every student's education.

In considering the best way to teach code, it became apparent that simply offering computer programming as an elective is not enough. And requiring students to take a standalone computer programming course in order to graduate doesn't quite cut it either. The best way to successfully introduce computer programming into a school's curriculum is to integrate coding concepts into everyday classes.

What this demonstrates is that students who are literate in writing code can take advantage of a wider range of opportunities, whether that means more advanced classes or the chance to build a robot from scratch. And with basic coding skills in place, teachers in math, science and other departments can build more sophisticated offerings across multiple disciplines. It's a win-win situation for both educators and students alike.

We've witnessed it firsthand: last October, a group of Beaver students received a $10,000 grant from the Lemelson-MIT program in order to build a robot called JARVIS that can wirelessly follow a user via motion sensors while carrying up to 50 lbs of secured cargo. After months of iterating and design, the Beaver InvenTeam will be debuting their prototype at MIT's EurekaFest this Friday. None of this would have been possible without the students' coding knowledge.

In short, computer programming is an essential skill. Starting next year, every Beaver student will graduate knowing how to code, because coding concepts will be taught in our core curriculum -- not just in a standalone elective. In order to cultivate our students to become successful leaders in our nation's new economy, we must send them out of high school armed with the skills they need. When it comes to designing a 21st century curriculum, integrating coding concepts is paramount.