This is an opinion editorial I wrote that originally was published in the Telegraph Journal on September 21, 2013.

Cracking the Code to Prosperity

By David Alston

Anyone watching the economic statistics in New Brunswick could be forgiven for feeling a bit grim. Our unemployment rate is one of the highest in Canada and our debt and deficit figures are troubling. Everyone agrees that we need to take action to create new jobs in the short-term.

We also need to take a long view, something that starts with our education system. This past spring I had a chance to visit a grade 6 class in Oromocto. As an experiment, this class had been working with a programming language called “Scratch” for a few weeks. The teacher had invited me to the class speak about technology related careers followed by an opportunity for the students to showcase their work.

What I saw astounded me. With only a few weeks of class work, mostly exploring on their own, the students had learned how to use Scratch to create new programs. Several students went further – I saw complex displays of logic and creativity. I saw complete remastering of classic arcade games that used to be popular when I was a kid.

I was blown away.

In that Oromocto classroom, I saw future programmers, user interface designers, engineers and startup entrepreneurs. I saw the potential for a bright future ahead for our region.

But this was one class in one school with one teacher, in a province with thousands of teachers. Apart from this classroom and a handful of others, few students have an opportunity to study coding in New Brunswick’s schools.

Coders are the people that build the apps, programs and operating systems that have become the foundation of our economy. It is the essential skill of the digital economy. That presents an incredible opportunity for constructive change in New Brunswick’s education system and economy.

Coding skills are a hot commodity in today’s job market, one that is only getting hotter. In fact a recent study from the Information and Communication Technology Council says there will be 106,000 unfilled tech jobs in Canada by 2016 and over a million in the US. Here in the Maritimes we are seeing startup companies popping up like dandelions in spring and the demand for coders has never been higher.

So there is clearly a disconnect between the jobs available today and tomorrow and what is being taught in New Brunswick’s education system. Today New Brunswick’s teachers and students learn about technology from two mandatory courses taught in Middle School and early High School. The curriculum is a decade out of date. So not only are students not learning relevant information, the outdated and irrelevant content means many actually end up with negative perceptions of working in the tech sector.

Educators recognize that we have opportunities to do things differently. Just look at what is happening in the United Kingdom. Recently the Minister of Education in the UK announced that the entire K-12 curriculum will be overhauled by next year to include coding as a central part of the learning experience.

In North America, volunteer groups are working to ingrain coding in the ways we work and think, led by the code.org movement and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made learning to code his New Year’s resolution.

Here at home, there is also work being done to promote coding skills. Not-for-profit groups like Ladies Learning Code, CompCamp and Science East are offering, or looking into, educational opportunities outside the classroom for coding instruction.

Don’t get me wrong, not everyone needs to be a coder. But learning to code opens up a whole new way of thinking for kids. It helps them learn logic and analytical skills and gives them a whole new way to express their creativity. It gets them thinking about what drives so many of the things we use today. What isn’t driven by a computer chip packed with programming in today’s world? In fact nearly every career is affected, enhanced or influenced by technology, and that technology is driven by code.

Clearly we need to do more to give our children the skills they need to succeed. For a regional economy that sees its students graduate, struggle to find work in their fields and then leave to for career in the oil patch its seems hard to imagine why more don’t look at the tech sector as a viable and exciting career.

The good news is that teachers and education administrators are starting to move forward. Teachers are promoting the use of Scratch to each other at conferences and education officials are recognizing the need to update the technology curriculums. A dozen teachers have decided to move ahead and include Scratch in their coursework this year, supported by volunteers from our local tech industry. Industry mentors have stepped forward, with the encouragement of the New Brunswick Information Technology Council (NBITC), to go into schools and share their passion for their careers in hopes of changing perceptions and inspiring youth.

It’s a start but we need to instill a sense of urgency in the process. It’s no exaggeration to say our future depends on it. Until every child in the Maritimes is given mandatory exposure to coding at least once in their school career, and preferably earlier rather than later, it simply won’t be enough. We need to update the technology curriculum in New Brunswick’s schools by 2014. If the U.K. can do it on a national basis, surely a small province like New Brunswick can be nimble enough to do it here.

Every child deserves a shot at one of those 100,000 unfilled, high paying jobs. Every child deserves that extra competitive advantage of knowing what goes on underneath the covers of technology so they can decide to innovate and improve upon it. Every child deserves the opportunity to unlock her or his creativity in both the traditional and modern sense.

This journey ahead will be recorded in history, literally. A documentary is being filmed right now in the Maritimes following the coding movement, capturing the key decisions, highlighting the milestones, examining the results of pilots, and hopefully celebrating a successful conclusion.

We have the ability to write a happy ending and to give our students a fair shot at leading tomorrow’s economy. What role will you play to ensure this happens?

David Alston (@DavidAlston) is an advisor to technology companies in Atlantic Canada and throughout North America.

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