Code or cursive – what do students need more?

Jul. 12, 2014 @ 11:10 AM

An intriguing report from the U S. Census Bureau last week offered yet more support to drawing far more students into the fields of science, technology, engineering and math – the so-called STEM fields.

Studying STEM can be good for your job prospects.

“STEM graduates have relatively low unemployment,” Liana Christin Landiva, a sociologies in the Census Bureau’s Industry and Occupation Statistics Branch, said in a bureau news release.

But here’s an interesting twist – “these graduates are not necessarily employed in STEM occupations,” Landiva said.

Indeed, the census bureau said that three out of four people with a bachelor’s degree in the STEM fields are employed in some other line of work.  The numbers vary by specific field – about half of those who majored in engineering, computer, math or statistics were in a STEM job. Only about a quarter of physical science majors were and for social science majors, only about 7 percent went into a STEM field.

The bureau didn’t speculate on what might account for the migration into so many other fields from STEM education, but it one possible answer might be that a STEM foundation prepares you pretty well for lots of other work.

The numbers reminded me of another idea I’ve recently heard a couple of people be passionate about – the value of teaching computer code in schools. Turns out in the United States, we don’t do that much, although there are many advantages.

"Ninety percent of schools just don't even teach it,” Hadi Partovi, co-founder of the nonprofit Code.org, told a National Public Radio reporter in February. “So if you're a parent and your school doesn't even offer this class, your kids aren't going to have the preparation they need for the 21st century," she argued. “Just like we teach how electricity works and biology basics, they should also know how the Internet works and how apps work."

I hadn’t thought much about learning computer code in school – if anything, I thought it might be an attractive course of study about given that computer programming has been a field for years with many more jobs than graduates trained to take them.

But learning computer code may well impart basic skills and understanding – and thought patterns – that are invaluable in today’s technology-laden world.

And the question of teaching code strikes me as at least as worthy of debate as teaching cursive writing. Its absence from the Common Core standards panicked our legislators even before this year’s hyperventilating about those instructional standards adopted by nearly every state.

Last spring, the legislature passed and Gov. Pat McCrory signed a law requiring that cursive be taught in school.

While some of the arguments advanced by legislators seemed a bit retrograde, perhaps a fear of the future, there is a healthy, ongoing debate over learning cursive writing. Learning cursive, many educators argue, has value beyond just being able to handwrite a letter. “The practice helps with learning letters and shapes, can improve idea composition and expression, and may aid fine motor-skill development,” the Wall Street Journal wrote in a report on its decline a few years ago.

That decline has been going on for four decades or more.  But it has accelerated as the advent of smartphones and tablets means that more and more of us need keyboarding skills far more than the ability to “make the small ‘Ls’ flow.”

It’s probably not bad idea for our kids learn cursive and code – and science, technology, engineer and math, no matter what there career plans.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678, or bashley@heraldsun.com. Or you can send him a note in cursive at 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.