Computer literacy: education's fourth 'R'

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Posted: Thursday, November 21, 2013 10:08 am | Updated: 5:37 pm, Fri Nov 22, 2013.

Something unusual is happening at a website called code.org. There, former President Bill Clinton, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and the rapper known as will.i.am stand together in perfect agreement about just one thing: more students should learn to code. As in learning to tell computers what to do through computer programming.

Rubio likes the idea because computer programmers are in great demand and earn attractive salaries. Gates says "learning to write programs stretches your mind and helps you think better, creates a way of thinking about things that I think is helpful in all domains."

For will.i.am, coding is a matter of survival in a fast-changing world. "Here we are, 2013, we all depend on technology to communicate, to bank, and none of us know how to read and write code," he writes. "It's important for these kids, right now, starting at 8 years old, to read and write code."

The need to encourage students toward computing classes and careers goes double for girls and minority students, who are historically under-represented in computer science fields, according to a report from the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.

Classes that teach computing skills are not uniformly available in U.S. K-12 schools, but students and teachers who are interested in coding for computer programming have many learning tools at their disposal, and some of them are free.

Scratch is a colorful website developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was meant for ages 8 to 16, but is used by people of all ages to create interactive stories, games and animations that can be shared online. The site says it helps young people learn to "think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively." Free.

Unplugged offers teachers a way to teach computing fundamentals without using computers. Lively activities get students out of their chairs as they learn basics of binary coding and applying logic to solve problems like sorting information. Free.

Alice is a 3D programming environment that makes it easy to create animations, games and videos for sharing on the Web. In Alice, students can animate 3-D people, animals and vehicles to populate a virtual world. Free.

PLEO rb is an elementary robotics program that uses baby dinosaur robots. Students learn to program the dinosaurs' behavior through various life stages, making choices about their dinosaur's appearance, gender, movement style and personality traits.

Roominate is a wired dollhouse developed to help girls develop interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) career fields. Designed by two women engineers, it teaches girls hands-on building, circuitry and engineering skills as they create and individualize an automated dollhouse.

GoldieBlox is a woman-owned company that makes construction sets for ages 4 to 9 in feminine colors, partnered with stories featuring smart, tech-savvy heroines.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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