On a recent day in the library, I asked my friends to humor me with a little bit of word association about different college majors. This proved to be an enlightening exercise in a number of ways, but among all the stereotypes and jokes, misperceptions about one distinct major stuck out: computer programming.

Julia Zarina

The responses I received ranged from hilarious to inaccurate, but the message was clear. To most people, computer science is still inaccessible, intimidating and the realm of white, possibly un-showered male hackers who haven’t seen the sun or interacted with another human in a non-Dungeons and Dragons scenario in months.

In the United States and many other countries around the world, there is a distinct mismatch between our perceptions and attitudes towards computer programming and our society’s need for it. The reality is that nearly all of us interact with and rely on computers, phones and other machines that require software on a daily basis, but very few of us consider ourselves to be “programmer material” at even the most basic level. We tweet, make Excel charts and shop online without even a fundamental understanding of how the pictures on our screens came to be or how the words we type are used as inputs in any form we fill out, password we type or application we use

Beyond our personal lives, computer programming is an even more relevant and important field. Projections show that 1.4 million programming jobs will be necessary in the upcoming decade, but current estimates predict that there will only be 400,000 graduates in the field over that time.

These numbers reflect some discouraging trends in both primary and secondary education in the United States. Despite our shift toward an information-based economy, computer science is the only subject that has declined in popularity in U.S. schools in the last decade. In 2012 only 1.4 percent of high school AP students took the computer science exam, compared with nearly 40 percent of the same group that took exams in English.

It’s time for us to change that.

We don’t live in an analog world anymore. From social interactions, to literature, to our economy, a large portion of our lives are on the computer or online. Our reality is virtual but our education systems have not adapted to help us understand it. In high school, a favorite teacher of mine once eloquently explained his take on why we all study math when we won’t all become mathematicians, and history when very few of us will ever go on to become experts in Cold War policy.

“Language, literature and history teach you that no problem is truly unique. People have been fighting and compromising and breaking each other’s hearts since the dawn of civilization. We learn from the past to help guide our future. In the same way, we study math and physics to help us form expectations about the outcomes of everyday events. Every subject you study in school provides you with a new way to understand the reality of the world around you.”

Coding is no exception. Even the most basic C++ class teaches students concepts more profound than just the syntax needed to execute a line of code. The logic required to write a program is unique, but its applications are numerous: students learn how to solve problems by breaking them down to their core components and analyzing which functions are required to make each of them work. These problem-solving skills are crucial to a basic understanding of many of the processes that make our digital world work, just as a basic understanding of physics concepts is crucial to understanding how and why everyday events in our physical world occur.

In the past few years, a number of initiatives have been successful in helping to introduce coding to popular culture. In a viral video that circulated the web last spring, a somewhat unlikely alliance of celebrities — among them, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, will.i.am and Chris Bosh discussed their experiences with computer programming and encouraged students of all ages to get involved in the field. The short film was an advertisement for Code.org, a non-profit organization “dedicated to expanding participation in computer science by making it available in more schools, and increasing participation by women and underrepresented students of color.” Today, a number of free online courses exist to promote the idea that anybody, from children to senior citizens of any gender and background, can and should code.

While these online programs provide an accessible and innovative platform to learn programming for anyone who is interested, they are not enough. Research shows that the popularity of free online classes such as those at Code.org and other massive open online classes offered through colleges and universities, is rising, but fails to show that these courses are as effective as traditional education. Nearly 90 percent of all people enrolled in MOOCs fail to complete them and students report feeling unmotivated, confused or uninterested at much higher rates than students learning in traditional classroom settings.

Around the world, other countries are bringing their education systems up to speed. This September, new curriculum requirements across England will take affect that will make coding and computing classes mandatory in all primary and secondary public schools. In the United States however, only nine states currently require computer science classes as a graduation prerequisite, and many schools do not offer computer programming classes of any kind.

In both education and mainstream society, a culture that accepts and promotes computer programming is necessary to adapt to and remain competitive in our changing world. If we are to truly embrace such a culture, we need more coding teachers and programs in schools at every level of the education system. From kindergarten to college, we need to provide the resources necessary to change the perception that computer programming is inaccessible. We all know that you don’t need to be a Nobel prize nominee to win a science fair, nor do you need to be a published author to enjoy writing. It’s time to throw out the computer programming stereotypes as well.

So get out there. Get coding.

Julia Zarina can be reached at jumilton@umich.edu.

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