There will be 1.4 million computer programming jobs by 2020, with only 400,000 American computer science students to fill those jobs, according to the America Can Code Act, a new piece of legislation which aims to make programming a mandatory foreign language requirement for K-12 students.

Despite this projected job deficiency, some computer science professors at N.C. State disagree with this notion that programming is a necessary skill for everyone in the digital-age workforce. 

Rep. Tony Cárdenas of California introduced the bill in December 2013, which would delegate computer programming languages as “critical foreign languages” and provide incentives for state and local schools to teach more computer science courses, according to the U.S. House of Representatives webpage.

“The very name of this law demonstrates that programming is simply another language,” Cárdenas said on the webpage. “Learning and communicating in a foreign language can have a tremendous impact on a student, both culturally and educationally. Computer programming creates a similar impact, while also providing a critical skill in today’s global economy.”

Some faculty members at N.C. State, including Associate Professor of computer science Tiffany Barnes and Assistant Professor of computer science Kristy Boyer, said it’s necessary for all students to be computer literate, but basic coding should be used as a tool to educate students about computers in general rather than the focal point.

“I do believe everyone should have a computer science course that teaches you how to uses computers, and coding should be an aspect of that because everyone uses computers for their job,” Barnes said.

Likewise, Boyer said she believes coding is a valuable part of this computer science education, which should be mandatory for K-12 students, but it’s not the only part.

“I certainly believe that learning to code, which involves creating software or apps in a computer programming language, is one way to develop an understanding of how computers work and why they are important to society,” Boyer said. “I’m not sure if learning to code is the only way to accomplish these goals, but I think it’s a great place to start.”

However, Barnes said making programming a required course for students could potentially lead to problems.

“Any requirement for coding to count as second language is going to cause a lot of complications and confusion among departments,” Barnes said. “If you make something like computer science count for second language—it sounds crazy—but you’ll have people starting to say that foreign language teachers can teach this when it’s really complicated, has a lot of science involved and shouldn’t be in a foreign language department.”

This trend to increase the prevalence of coding in K-12 classrooms isn’t limited to the Americans Can Code Act, either. 

According to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, “becoming literate in code is as essential to being literate in language and math,” NPR reported.

Vincent Freeh, associate professor of computer science, said there’s some truth to Cantor’s statement, but doesn’t think coding should be emphasized as much as language and math. 

“Programming can become more and more important, but you’ll be able to use computers with less sophistication and they’ll be easier to use [in the future],” Freeh said. “I wouldn’t put it on par with language; that has to be much more important than computer language. Math is also very important. Learning to program will never be as important as learning to write or speak.”

The Americans Can Code Act also mentions programming in the context of science, technology, engineering and math education but not the humanities.

According to Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of Psychology, Jeffery Braden, the legislation is “misplaced.”

“The notion of requiring coding as a mechanism to boost your ability to participate in a STEM-focused economy is a misplaced idea for several reasons,” Braden said.

Braden said coding practices change quickly and dramatically and the programming languages that existed when he first came to N.C. State are no longer used. Therefore, teaching students how to use specific coding languages would be futile.

“It’s well intentioned but ultimately a bad idea and not just for CHASS students,” Braden said. “I wouldn’t make that a requirement for students in engineering either.”

Freeh said he agreed with Braden that not all students need to learn how to program, but that program skills are useful even if you never actually code. 

“[My wife and I] are teaching our kids Latin, and we know they will never converse in Latin, but there is still much to gain from learning it,” Freeh said.

Barnes and Boyer concurred with Freeh that although many students might not be able to apply coding directly, it still has the ability teach them other skills.

“A programming language controls a computer; it encodes an algorithm,” Freeh said. “The computer does exactly what you tell it to do. If you don’t tell it exactly what to do, it doesn’t work, and you learn a lot from that. The organization and mental models you learn while developing computer languages are a very good skill to have, and the skill set that you learn to figure out how to write a program or debug a program is a valuable skill set and mental tool.”

Barnes said learning to code, while it shouldn’t be required, can teach students how to solve logical problems. 

“When you learn how to code, you’re learning how to solve a problem and then break that problem down into pieces, then break that into pieces that a computer can understand,” Barnes said. “You’re getting a machine to do something for you, and once it does it for you once, it will do it every single time.”

Furthermore, Freeh said the legislation is a bad idea because decisions about education should be made locally by the people “closest to the children.”

“I don’t think anyone in Washington should make decisions about what students in North Carolina should learn,” Freeh said. “Those decisions are best made by the people closest to the children. [Legislators] shouldn’t be answering questions about any curriculum, whether that be English, math or computer science. When things are dictated out of Washington they don’t work, and that has nothing to do with computer science.”

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