Update (Friday evening): Here is a letter to the editor in Saturday morning’s Orlando Sentinel written in response to a story on the computer programming-for-physical education substitution in SB 790.
Senate Bill 790 was originally filed with a provision that would have encouraged K-12 schools to offer students the opportunity to learn computer programming, which is an incredibly important skill in the 21st century. But the bill was amended to allow students to substitute a computer programming course for a math or science high school graduation requirement (but not biology – biology is still required). When that amendment passed the Senate Education Committee last month, the bill became yet another setback for math and science education in Florida. I sent the letter below to the Chair and Vice Chair of the Senate Education Committee this morning. Yes, the horses are already out of the barn…but still. It’s also worth noting that about a dozen states have already passed such legislation, and it’s being pushed by Microsoft through the Code.org organization. So this is a national issue.
Dear Senators Legg and Montford:
As you know, Senate Bill 790 was amended from its original language so that now it would allow a high school student to substitute a computer programming course for a science or math course in meeting graduation requirements. If passed and signed into law, the bill would be yet another setback for science and math education in Florida.
Computer programming is an important marketable skill for 21st century students, like typing was when I was growing up. My parents registered me to take a typing course at our local community college during the summer between my 7th and 8th grade years, and by the end of the summer I was blazing away at 40 words per minute, which would have qualified me for a good secretarial job if I hadn’t been 12 years old. But it would never have occurred to my parents to ask the administration of the middle school I attended to substitute my typing course for an English course – which would have been equivalent to substituting a programming course for a science or math course in 2014.
When I was 16, I became the luckiest teenager in my hometown when I secured a job writing software for a company that served insurance agencies and companies by producing programs that helped customers understand the insurance products they were considering. I taught myself a language called BASIC and learned how to write programs for the relatively primitive computers in use then. But that wasn’t what made me valuable to the company. What made me valuable was that I could read complex insurance contracts and turn the language into mathematical algorithms that calculated the future premiums and cash values of the insurance policies described by those contracts. If I had somehow been convinced to take a computer programming course and to skip the Algebra 2 class that taught me how to handle the calculations in the computer programs I was writing, I would have been useless to my employer and I wouldn’t have had that job.
The point is that while programming teaches important mechanical skills, students need higher level math and science courses to become innovators. Allowing a programming course to substitute for a math or science course doesn’t make any sense, any more than allowing a typing course to substitute for an English course would have when I was in middle school.
The innovations that drive economic revolutions are not incremental advances like the transition from MySpace to Facebook. Instead, they are driven by the basic research that results in new technologies powered by new science. The next profound technological revolution may be driven by the development of a practical quantum computer. The economy of the state or nation where that development takes place will be transformed and will be a rising tide that raises all economic boats.
So will the developer of the first practical quantum computer be a scientist or engineer from Florida, propelled by her or his education in Florida’s schools?
Not if she or he decided to take computer programming in high school instead of a physics course.