Computer coding classes are more than just a fun after-school activity – it’s giving your kids a leg to stand on when they’re ready to hit the big bad job market.
As parents, there’s this pressure to get everything right (much of it is internal, granted), from what we feed our kids to giving them all the opportunities they need to thrive. When it comes to extra-curricular activities, I offer my kids all the usual choices: music, dance, drama, swimming (non-negotiable), sports, and so on. Not much lights them up – until the day we got a flyer for a nearby Toronto tech school that offered after-school program and weekend classes on coding for kids and teens.
I’d been struggling to find something that my son would do without a fight (only so much fight in a mama) and the thought of taking a class to learn coding for Minecraft, one of his favourite games, had him – and my 11-year-old daughter - literally jumping for joy.
My first instinct was that my son should be doing something physical so he can get exercise. But, the truth is, other than exercise and team play, I can’t really say what else my son’s weekly run around the soccer field gives him. My boy will never be an athlete (he has my genes, after all) and his daily running, scootering, skateboarding, playground climbing, tag-playing gets him more cardio than I get in a week.
So, why not, I thought? And, the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. Computer coding skills are something he can build on and will carry with him for the rest of his life. These are skills that are not being taught in school in any significant way, so what better use of after school program time than something that he’s not only excited about but will also help set him up for life?
Coding the future
Confession time: one of the reasons I so quickly got behind the idea of coding class for my kids is because I wanted to start building my own little (like, under 4’ tall) IT team. As an entrepreneur with a staff of none, I often find myself muttering very bad words while searching the web for ‘how to’ instructions on updating my website. It’s an act of frustration and inefficiency, and I’m always wishing I knew more about ‘this stuff.’ I know I’m not alone. This is the how it is for many parents who grew up in the 80s and early 90s, for whom computers were little more than a word processor and the Internet was still a novelty mostly used for sending email to someone you met on vacation or your cousin in the U.S.
So, what is this ‘stuff’ exactly? Steve Engels is an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto. He likens coding with giving someone directions to your house or a recipe to follow, but in a digital context. Engels has noticed a change in recent years.
“Demand for computer science programs has been increasing dramatically, both here at U of T and at schools around the world,” he says. “Some people are looking for ways to integrate computing with other fields of interest, such as medicine, law, music or art. Others are looking at the growing tech industry, and want to become one of the experts in this growing field. And still others want to be the ones creating new, state-of-the-art technology.”
But, if kids and teens wait until their post-secondary years, they’re already behind in the game. I want my kids to know more than me. I was (half) joking when I said I want them to be my IT crew but, really, I want them to have choices and thrive in this quickly changing world and job market.
“Coding is a skill that's becoming more vital every day, and not just for people in fields like computer science or engineering,” says Engels. It's becoming a part of nearly every industry as technology is integrated in nearly everything we do. Learning how to code unlocks a lot of doors, so that people who grow up with this technology don't just learn how to be consumers of it, but producers as well.”
Margaret Galvin is the Head of Talent Acquisition at Accenture Canada, a global professional services organization with over 400,000 employees. She says that teaching kids the language of computers is the foundation for employment success.
“It's really important for kids to start learning these skills,” she ways. “The jobs we are seeing now, and future needs, are heavy with technology.”
Galvin notes that there’s currently a dearth of certain skill sets in job candidates. “There’s a noticeable gap in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) for women so it’s important to get kids interested early, to promote STEM at early ages.
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Not just for computer geeks
The first Saturday morning I dropped my kids off at their Minecraft modding class (I still barely know what that means), my 11-year-old daughter jumped excitedly out of the car and gleefully yelled ‘Nerds!!’ It was a hilarious throwback to what the computer lab used to be synonymous with (think Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science) yet the stigma is long gone.
No longer are computer skills only for wearers of pocket-protectors and coke-bottle glasses who want to work in a computer- or tech-related industry. Now, these skills are as expected on a resume as an email address and a cellphone number. They are for anyone who wants to even register on an employer’s radar.
Eren Fernandez is the founder of The Cube, the technology school my kids are so excited about attending. “We’re not trying to train kids to be computer scientists or designers,” she says. “We want to give them exposure to the technology and possibilities so they have the chance to see if they enjoy it.”
She explains that the courses offered at The Cube aren’t about training kids for future jobs but more about giving them a taste of coding to see if it’s something they want to pursue through school and, maybe, into the job market.
For me, that’s perfectly in line with what I’m hoping to offer my kids with any after-school programs: a chance to see if it’s something they’re into. The added bonus is that, in this instance, it’s going to serve them well no matter what.
So, why are computer skills so important in any industry? I asked Galvin why it matters so much.
“It's not just the technology knowledge itself employers are looking for,” she says. “It's the tech plus the experience, so ‘design thinking.’ This is going to be huge for kids.”
‘Design thinking’ is the term I keep hearing when I mention my kids are learning things like how to use Java to design modes in Minecraft. Design thinking is about the process, learning how to merge creative thinking with technology to figure out what’s possible and to problem solve.
In the entrepreneur circles I’m a part of, some of the most common asks are about what can be done techonology-wise and how to get there – with someone’s website, payment processing, creating online courses, hosting webinars, and so on. Basically, people are looking for that recipe that Engels talked about. These aren’t technology and computer entrepreneurs. They’re photographers, in-home service providers, artists, nutritionists, writers, consultants, and more.
“When I'm asked about fields students go into after graduating, I ask people to think about all the industries that use computers these days,” says Engels. The question isn't as much about what fields students can go into with a computing degree, but rather what fields wouldn't benefit from the application of computing. Of course, many of our students look to the traditional placements in companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon and so on. But there are as many who take their computer science knowledge and apply it to other industries. There are no limits to where computer scientists can apply their skills.
Not only do coding skills give kids a head start on landing their dream job, it’s also a way for them to forge their own path.
“Many new graduates create or join a startup,” says Engels. “Instead of joining an established company, they see a need that can be satisfied with technology, and set out on their own to fill that need. That's one of the liberating things about having these skills.”
AUTHOR: Kama Lee Jackson is a freelance writer and founder of Bloom, teaching prenatal and postpartum classes to parents and parents-to-be. She lives in Toronto with her two children, with whom she gets endless pleasure by verbally subtitling their two cats.