kid_computersWatching Code.org’s video promoting the fine art of computer programming, you get the sense that it’s selling a little too hard. Certainly, with cameos from a wide array of tech superstars including Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, Tony Hsieh and Drew Houston, it is star-studded. And certainly, it is well-intentioned. But the message devolves into a bit of a hard sell.

Coding is not that hard, guys! The math part isn’t, like, impossible! You don’t even have to be a genius nerd! We’re normal, just like you, except we’re successful beyond your wildest dreams, and rich, too! 

I’m paraphrasing. But there is almost an underlying nervousness, like a mom trying to sell her kids on the virtues of vegetables.

The nervousness is not unfounded: the lack of computer programming talent in the US will hurt us. By the year 2018, there will be 1.4 million computer science jobs in the US — the category is growing at twice the pace of the national average. Yet only 29 percent of those jobs will be able to be filled by US employees. Less than 2.4 percent of today’s college grads have a computer science degree, a decline from 10 years ago. It’s of critical importance that more kids (and adults) take an interest in learning to code.

The problem is that your average junior high schooler can sense the desperation in such videos. Further, the thing that Zuckerberg, Gates and Dorsey seem to have in common is that they discovered computer science on their own. It wasn’t forced upon them and certainly not advertised to them.

One startup, which today launched its own modest effort to preach the gospel of code, is taking a slightly different tact. Hopscotch is a beta-mode iPad app for kids ages eight and up to learn coding. Since the language is visual, there is no writing, making coding conducive to learning on an iPad. Kids can drag and drop blocks of code into a scripting area as they begin to understand the basics of computer programming.

In fact, it is the first coding language designed to be used on mobile devices, says co-founder, CEO and former teacher Jocelyn Leavitt. Soon, Hopscotch will release enough functions that the language will be Turing-complete, meaning it is computationally universal — its kid coders aren’t limited in what they can make.

The idea behind Hopscotch is not to make kids into code-writing masterminds — they can’t on one simple visual programming app. But rather, it is to lower the intimidation level. Many programming languages require typing brackets and parenthesis and spacing, which means the entire program breaks if one thing is off. “That turns a lot of people off of programming very early on,” she says. Hopscotch’s visual language avoids syntax errors.

Hopscotch aims merely to get kids interested in computer science and confident that they can do it. “We want kids to begin playing with it, and fall in love with making an idea they have, which is very empowering to them,” Leavitt says.

The app will not sell itself to schools or teachers, she says, because the goal is to get kids interested in coding for fun. “We wanted app to be good enough that a teacher wouldn’t have to cram it down a kid’s throat,” she says. “We hope it will be compelling on its own, so that a kid would want to play with it even without being assigned to.”

[Image via education blog]