Training the Next Generation Data Scientists

Editorial-OpinionThe demand for data scientists is increasing at an astounding rate and traditional institutions of higher education are just beginning to address the need by offering new degree programs. But what about the next generation of data scientists and how best to train them? Not to worry, there is a new programming language called Scratch Jr. designed to teach programming to children still learning to read and tie their shoes. Based on the Scratch language that emerged from the MIT Media Label 10 years ago for kids 8 and older, the new language is designed for K through 2. Although not currently available to the public, its creators are preparing for an iPad version in 2014. The project is led by Marina Umaschi Bers, a professor in the department of child development at Tufts University, and Mitchel Resnick, Scratch’s founder at the M.I.T. Media Lab.

I have some personal insight into the idea of turning kids onto coding. I myself was a child programmer. My junior high school was part of a very selective experiment to introduce computers to school age children. I was 13 when I first learned to code in BASIC and assembly language (we’re going back quite a few years here). Success in school often centers around confidence and momentum (where innate ability is sometimes suppressed by non-academic factors) and this rang true in my case. After I became totally absorbed with computers, I became an overnight guru and as a result I went from being a very mediocre student to top of the class. I’m hoping the same will happen to many of these young programmers.

With Scratch Jr., children can code scenes in which characters utter words in cartoon-like thought bubbles — and that may encourage children to try to read them — but programming the computer to advance the scene’s action does not require that children know how to read. There are signs that at or before age 5, the concepts of sequencing — the “if, then” programming language construct — take time for children to grasp, but it can be mastered at this early age.

A petition on the Web site for Code.org, an education advocacy group, stating that every student in every school should have the opportunity to learn to code, has attracted over 780,000 digital signatures. I think that if kids are encouraged to think algorithmically and iteratively at an early age, many of tomorrow’s data scientists will blossom as a result and we can all benefit from that. Does anybody else out there have any personal experience with young programmers? If so, I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

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