The Two Codes Your Kids Need to Know

The College Board came up with a surprising conclusion about keys to success for college and life.

Thomas L. Friedman

By Thomas L. Friedman

Opinion Columnist

Ninth graders in a computer class in Brooklyn. The College Board has said that to be successful, students need to master computer science.CreditCreditSarah Blesener for The New York Times

A few years ago, the leaders of the College Board, the folks who administer the SAT college entrance exam, asked themselves a radical question: Of all the skills and knowledge that we test young people for that we know are correlated with success in college and in life, which is the most important? Their answer: the ability to master “two codes” — computer science and the U.S. Constitution.

Since then they’ve been adapting the SATs and the College Board’s Advanced Placement program to inspire and measure knowledge of both. Since the two people who led this move — David Coleman, president of the College Board, and Stefanie Sanford, its chief of global policy — happen to be people I’ve long enjoyed batting around ideas with, and since I thought a lot of students, parents and employers would be interested in their answer, I asked them to please show their work: “Why these two codes?”

Their short answer was that if you want to be an empowered citizen in our democracy — able to not only navigate society and its institutions but also to improve and shape them, and not just be shaped by them — you need to know how the code of the U.S. Constitution works. And if you want to be an empowered and adaptive worker or artist or writer or scientist or teacher — and be able to shape the world around you, and not just be shaped by it — you need to know how computers work and how to shape them.

With computing, the internet, big data and artificial intelligence now the essential building blocks of almost every industry, any young person who can master the principles and basic coding techniques that drive computers and other devices “will be more prepared for nearly every job,” Coleman and Sanford said in a joint statement explaining their initiative. “At the same time, the Constitution forms the foundational code that gives shape to America and defines our essential liberties — it is the indispensable guide to our lives as productive citizens.”

So rather than have SAT exams and Advanced Placement courses based on things that you cram for and forget, they are shifting them, where they can, to promote the “two codes.”

In 2016, the College Board completely revamped its approach to A.P. computer science courses and exams. In the original Computer Science course, which focused heavily on programming in Java, nearly 80 percent of students were men. And a large majority were white and Asian, said Coleman. What that said to women and underrepresented minorities was, “How would you like to learn the advanced grammar of a language that you aren’t interested in?”

Turned out that was not very welcoming. So, explained Coleman, they decided to “change the invitation” to their new Computer Science Principles course by starting with the question: What is it that you’d like to do in the world? Music? Art? Science? Business? Great! Then come build an app in the furtherance of that interest and learn the principles of computer science, not just coding, Coleman said. “Learn to be a shaper of your environment, not just a victim of it.”

The new course debuted in 2016. Enrollment was the largest for a new course in the history of Advanced Placement, with just over 44,000 students nationwide.

Two years later The Christian Science Monitor reported, “More high school students than ever are taking the College Board’s Advanced Placement (A.P.) computer science exams, and those taking them are increasingly female and people of color.”


Indeed, the story added, “the College Board reports that from 2017 to 2018 female, African-American and Hispanic students were among the fastest growing demographics of A.P. computer science test-takers, with increases in exam participation of 39 percent, 44 percent and 41 percent, respectively. … For context, in 2007, fewer than 3,000 high school girls took the A.P. Computer Science A exam; in 2018, more than 15,000 completed it.”

The A.P. U.S. Government and Politics course also was reworked. At a time when we have a president who doesn’t act as if he’s read the Constitution — and we have a growing perception and reality that college campuses are no longer venues for the free exchange of ideas and real debate of consequential issues — Coleman and Sanford concluded that it was essential that every student entering college actually have command of the First Amendment, which enshrines five freedoms, not just freedom of speech.

Every student needs to understand that, as Coleman put it, “our country was argued into existence — and that is the first thing that binds us — but also has some of the tensions that divide us. So we thought, ‘What can we do to help replace the jeering with productive conversation?’”

It had to start in high school, said Sanford, who is leading the “two codes” initiative. “Think of how much more ready you are to participate in college and society with an understanding of the five freedoms that the First Amendment protects — of speech, assembly, petition, press and religion. The First Amendment lays the foundation for a mature community of conversation and ideas — built on the right and even obligation to speak up and, when needed, to protest, but not to interrupt and prevent others from speaking.”

This becomes particularly important, she noted, “when technology and democracy are thought of as in conflict, but are actually both essential” and need to work in tandem.

One must observe only how Facebook was abused in the 2016 election to see that two of the greatest strengths of America — innovation and free speech — have been weaponized. If they are not harmonized, well, Houston, we have a problem.

So the new A.P. government course is built on an in-depth look at 15 Supreme Court cases as well as nine foundational documents that every young American should know. It shows how the words of the Constitution give rise to the structures of our government.

Besides revamping the government course and the exam on that subject, Coleman and Sanford in 2014 made a staple of the regular SAT a long reading comprehension passage from one of the founding documents, such as the Constitution, or another important piece of democracy, like a great presidential speech. That said to students and teachers something the SAT had never dared say before: Some content is disproportionately more powerful and important, and if you prepare for it you will be rewarded on the SAT.

Sanford grew up in Texas and was deeply affected as a kid watching video of the African-American congresswoman Barbara Jordan arguing the case against Richard Nixon in Watergate. What she remembered most, said Sanford, was how Jordan’s power “emanated from her command of the Constitution.

“Understanding how government works is the essence of power. To be a strong citizen, you need to know how the structures of our government work and how to operate within them.”

Kids are getting it: An A.P. U.S. Government and Politics class at Hightstown High School in New Jersey was credited in a Senate committee report with contributing content to a bill, the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act, which was signed into law last month.

Sanford cites it as a great example of her mantra: “‘Knowledge, skills and agency’ — kids learn things, learn how to do things and then discover that they can use all that to make a difference in the world.”

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Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs Op-Ed columnist. He joined the paper in 1981, and has won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of seven books, including “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” which won the National Book Award.

A School That Embraces a Trendy Model: The Start-Up

The Brooklyn STEAM Center is one of the latest models for technical high schools. It was developed in partnership with the Brooklyn Navy Yard.CreditCreditNicole Craine for The New York Times

By Winnie Hu

They brainstorm in conference rooms equipped with whiteboards, use high-end computers and equipment and are given free breakfast and lunch.

Except these are no start-up workers.

They are students at an unusual New York City public high school embedded inside a technology and manufacturing hub with more than 400 companies at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was developed with industry leaders to teach real-life job skills that would lay the foundation for the next generation of workers in a city where the tech industry is flourishing with the expanding presence of Google and Amazon’s plans to build a large campus in Queens.

While classrooms in New York and elsewhere have increasingly focused on preparing children for jobs in a tech economy, the recently opened school, Brooklyn STEAM Center, has taken it one step further by locating itself next to companies where students might actually work. It is one of only a handful of programs in the country that are situated in a workplace.

“Our ambition is that it will be a next-generation model for career and technical schools here in New York City,” said David Ehrenberg, the president and chief executive officer of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, a nonprofit that manages the city-owned, 300-acre waterfront site where battleships, like the U.S.S. Missouri, were once built.

The Navy Yard already has an on-site job center, but Mr. Ehrenberg said the school will help ensure that more local residents have the necessary technical skills and training for the jobs being created there.

Emama Acther, center, leads a computer science class at the Brooklyn STEAM Center.CreditNicole Craine for The New York Times

The program offers students a chance to show what they can do. “Instead of learning on paper — and maybe you forget it, and maybe you don’t — you put your hands into the work,” Jordan Gomes, 16, said.

On Tuesday, the schools chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, and other city leaders will officially open the school’s $17 million home at the Navy Yard, about two weeks after students moved in.

The STEAM Center — standing for science, technology, engineering, arts and math — grew out of a pilot program to increase career and technical education opportunities among Brooklyn high school students. Today, 221 juniors and seniors spend half the day at other high schools taking required academic classes, and the other half at the center specializing in one of five tracks: design and engineering; computer science and information technology; film and media; construction technology; and culinary arts and hospitality management.

The students apply to the center and are selected by their high schools. There is no minimum required grade point average or test score. About 93 percent of the students are black or Hispanic, and 74 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced lunch.


The center is the latest evolution of vocational schools that once served as a pipeline for blue-collar industries, but have increasingly embraced technology and academic skills to prepare students for emerging jobs in fields such as health care, engineering and information technology. Many schools now partner with local businesses and industries, but few are based at workplaces.


School Principal Kayon Pryce, left, and Brooklyn Navy Yard President David Ehrenberg inside the Brooklyn STEAM Center.CreditNicole Craine for The New York Times

Alisha Hyslop, the director of public policy for the Association for Career and Technical Education, said a fashion and marketing program is taught inside a Virginia shopping mall, while another program covering energy industry jobs is based at an Arizona utility company. These experiences have “tremendous potential to strengthen connections between the education that happens in the classroom and what happens in the real world,” she said.

In New York, the STEAM Center is one of only two schools at a workplace; the other, Aviation High School, offers classes at LaGuardia Airport. “We’re certainly looking for more opportunities for our students to be as close to the industries they are studying as possible,” said Phil Weinberg, the Education Department’s deputy chief academic officer for teaching and learning.

Citywide, there are 301 career and technical programs — 47 opened in the last three years. In total, the programs enroll about 64,000 students and train them for careers ranging from software engineer to harbor master.

Still, some educators and parents have raised concerns that such highly specialized programs are a form of tracking that can lead students to focus too early on a particular job or career and be steered away from college.

David C. Bloomfield, a professor of educational leadership, law and policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, said the STEAM Center needed to be thoroughly vetted by parents, independent industry experts and college representatives to ensure that it puts the needs of students over employers.


Students play games between classes at the computer science lab.CreditNicole Craine for The New York Times

“There’s a danger that it’s either a self-serving track for low-skilled jobs right out of high school, or that it teaches skills that will be obsolete once they complete college,” he said.

The STEAM Center was developed by Kayon Pryce, the founding principal, along with Mr. Ehrenberg and Dr. Lester W. Young Jr., a member of the state Board of Regents and a former city education official. It initially held classes in two high schools before moving to the Navy Yard.

The center, Dr. Young said, has brought together children from both high achieving and struggling high schools, where students, often poor and from minority communities, have less access to opportunities. “The old model of career technical education in a school is an old model,” he said. “We had to think boldly.”

The school’s new home, which looks like a start-up company, has conference rooms, as well as a room for private calls, a recording studio, a screening room and a teaching kitchen that can feed thousands. Student lockers come in a gray-matte finish inspired by the lockers at a nearby fashion company.

Mr. Pryce said most students planned to go to college, including one senior who has received a full scholarship to study computer science at St. John’s University.


Instructor Mitchell Almonte, right, works with students during a Construction Tech class.CreditNicole Craine for The New York Times

“I’m not trying to pigeonhole any student into a career opportunity for a company at the end of this program,” he said. “I’m providing them with broader exposure to true college and career experiences.”

The school’s advisory board is mostly made up of industry experts who have shaped the curriculum, given lectures and hosted company visits. Students have been placed in 63 paid internships so far, half of which were with companies in the Navy Yard.

“The Navy Yard is pretty much our PTA,” Mr. Pryce said.

Bonbite NYC, a catering company developing an app-based service for wedding clients, hired three interns to work in the kitchen. “Typically for high school students, they don’t have an opportunity to get into businesses like ours,” said Winston Chiu, a school advisory board member and partner in the company.

Devanta Dickerson, 18, said he whipped up mini beef Wellingtons at Bonbite last summer after earning a food handler’s license at the center, and got a glimpse of a future career. He planned to pay for college by working part time in restaurants.

The emphasis at the school is on being relevant in a modern tech world. Students master design, engineering and construction skills by transforming two shipping containers into smart homes. Computer science students wired the new computer lab; now they maintain the network and troubleshoot problems. Film and media students recorded podcasts, and shot and edited a commercial promoting the school.

The school also teaches so-called soft skills — or what Mr. Pryce calls “21st-century success skills” — such as the importance of showing up on time, responding to emails and getting along with co-workers. Students also learn to network, coming up with a 30-second “elevator pitch” — the time it takes to ride the elevator up to the center’s home on the third floor.

Deon Watts, 16, said the lessons would not only help her succeed in a male-dominated construction industry, but also assist her in becoming the boss of her own company.

“It’s not like your English class can teach you how to build a box or fix an electrical circuit,” she said. “It’s important because that’s how you’re going to survive in the real world. It’s not as easy as reading a book.”

5 things I’m telling my kids to prepare them for the future

Fast Company

As young people start to enter the workforce, things are going to be very different than they are now. Here’s how to prepare them.

October 8, 2018

I have four kids, ages 5 to 14, and I and know they’re very unlikely to follow the same educational path I did. I’m certain they’ll be preparing themselves for a very different job market. As my youngest is in kindergarten and my oldest just started high school, here are my thoughts for them.

Technology’s impacts are varied and yet to be determined. We like technology when it makes our daily lives easier and often more fun. But on the flip side, we worry. It’s natural to look toward the future and wonder what change will bring. Earlier this year, for example, Gallup found that nearly eight in 10 Americans believe artificial intelligence (AI) will destroy more jobs than it creates over the next decade. I believe the impact of AI will be much less significant than most predictions, but at the same time want to help people look ahead, eyes wide open.

Drawing on my time as co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Future Council on Education, Gender and Work, I’ve tried to distill some of the Council’s most important research into advice for my children as they gradually age their way into the workforce.

Here’s what I’m telling them and why:

[Image: Andrey_A/iStock]


When I attended Davos in 2017, the metaphor most commonly used for AI was the Terminator: a scary all-powerful robot capable of doing your job, who then starts a robot revolution.

But the following year, as I’ve written before, the Iron Man metaphor replaced Terminator. The change reflected the shifting attitudes about tech: from completely replacing humans to complementing, or augmenting, their abilities and pushing innovation.

Personally, I think Iron Man is a better metaphor than Terminator for two reasons.

First, past technological revolutions, from the automobile to the ATM, have ended up creating more jobs than they destroyed. And second, contrary to popular imagination, technology still has a long way to go before it reaches the kind of capabilities that alarmists like Elon Musk have warned about.

Instead, I think Yann LeCun, who heads AI research at Facebook, has it right. “In particular areas, machines have superhuman performance,” LeCun says. “But in terms of general intelligence we’re not even close to a rat.”

Self-driving cars, for example, are still far from meeting minimal safety standards, and AI is still just fairly simple neural nets, not mythical omniscient machines. More importantly, while it’s great to be aware of the increasing powers of technology, the truth is that the prospect of automation creating serious joblessness is only one of what are really multiple plausible scenarios.

[Image: Andrey_A/iStock]


Why? Because skills are changing faster than traditional education is keeping up. There are a few reasons for this. After all,  per Moore’s law, technological progress grows exponentially, creating smarter and smarter machines, which require newer and newer skills. Plus, in an era of fast-paced technological and scientific breakthroughs, the more we discover, the more we have to learn new skills.

And while some leading universities now offer courses on the gig economy or new technologies like the blockchain, it’s far from being the norm. The vast majority of high schools and colleges aren’t adapting quickly enough to the change, leaving their students increasingly unprepared for the jobs market.

“Some studies suggest,” according to the WEF, “that 65 percent of children entering primary school today will have jobs that do not yet exist and for which their education will fail to prepare them.” And the WEF report “Realizing Human Potential in the Fourth Industrial Revolution” predicts that approximately 35% of the skills demanded for jobs across industries will change by 2020.

In practical terms, constant technological change requires that my children’s generation needs to begin thinking of education as a lifelong pursuit. That means they might have to attend community college in order to get a certification, or get a Masters from a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) or a nanodegree from an online learning platform like Udemy–or all three at different points throughout their careers to remain relevant as the job market transforms.

[Image: Andrey_A/iStock]


A little over half of the working-age population worldwide are traditional employees. But that’s changing, because working for yourself has never been easier, thanks to technology that enables greater collaboration.

As work becomes more digitized, it’s also becoming less tied to geography. UX designers, or copywriters, or Android developers don’t need to be in an expensive downtown office building to find meaningful work and earn top dollar. They can do their jobs anywhere.

And as work becomes less tied to geography, digital platforms, like Etsy and Upwork–which connect people to work together regardless of location–increasingly offer people a chance to be their own bosses.

[Image: Andrey_A/iStock]


As automation advances, the most prized skills are those that can’t be performed by a robot.

Sure, hard skills like programming, data analysis, engineering, and math are important; however, the WEF’s “Future of Jobs” report finds that technical know-how won’t be enough in the future.

“Overall, social skills—such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others—will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills,” says the WEF. “In essence, technical skills will need to be supplemented with strong social and collaboration skills.”

[Image: Andrey_A/iStock]


Despite a lot of the fear-mongering about the future, no one really knows how technology will progress.

A WEF study from earlier this year, “Eight Futures of Work: Scenarios and their Implications,” highlighted that uncertainty, pointing to other factors that will also change the way we live and work–like our education systems and immigration policies, which are both within our control.

After all, we make the machines. We create schools and write curricula, and it’s up to us how talent and work move across borders.

The future isn’t written in stone. It’s not inevitable. It’s yours to shape–and that gives me reason to be hopeful.

Calculus Is the Peak of High School Math. Maybe It’s Time to Change That


May 22, 2018
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For more than 30 years, calculus has been seen as the pinnacle of high school math—essential for careers in the hard sciences, and an explicit or unspoken prerequisite for top-tier colleges.

But now, math and science professionals are beginning to question how helpful current high school calculus courses really are for advanced science fields. The ubiquitous use of data in everything from physics and finance to politics and education is helping to build momentum for a new path in high school math—one emphasizing statistics and data literacy over calculus.

“We increasingly understand the world around us through data: gene expression, identifying new planets in distant solar systems, and everything in between,” said Randy Kochevar, a senior research scientist at the Education Development Center, an international nonprofit that works with education officials. Statistics and data analysis, he said, “is fundamental to many of the things we do routinely, not just as scientists but as professionals.”

He and other experts are still debating the best way to integrate a new approach in an already crowded high school curriculum. One of the most difficult philosophical challenges: how to prevent a statistics path from replicating the severe tracking and equity problems that have long existed in classical mathematics.

“There’s a sense that calculus is up here and statistics is a step below,” said Dan Chase, a secondary mathematics teacher at Carolina Day School in North Carolina, adding that he often struggles to suggest to students that, “if you are interested in engineering, that might be a good reason to go to calculus, but if you are interested in business or the humanities or social sciences, there are different paths you might go, even if you are a top-achieving math student.”

On face value, new expectations for students already seem to be moving toward statistics. Both the Common Core State Standards, on which many states’ math requirements are based, and the Next Generation Science Standards call for teaching data analysis and statistics, both on their own and in the process of learning other concepts.

But Kochevar warned: “There’s a huge disconnect; if you look closely at the science standards, they are expecting students to have tremendous faculty with using data by middle school, but if you look at the courses, it’s really not clear where those skills are supposed to be filled.”

Both sets of standards need more integration of data and statistics, he and others argue, because they were developed in the early years of the big data boom. Studies tracking data worldwide through the years have found people produced 1.5 exabytes of new data in 1999—or roughly 250 megabytes of data for every person alive—but by 2011, when states were adopting and implementing the math standards, people produced more than 14 exabytes a year. Today, people worldwide produce 2.5 exabytes of data every day, and the total data have doubled every two years.

Ironically, the rapid expansion of big data and statistics use in the broader society and economy comes at the same time American students seem to be struggling with those concepts. From 2007 to 2017, 4th and 8th students’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in mathematics fell significantly on problems related to data analysis, statistics, and probability—a decline that helped drive overall dips on the math test in 2017.

In part, experts say, that’s because statistics and data analysis have traditionally taken a back seat to calculus in high school math, and most students already have difficulty completing the classical path.

“The idea that statistics is hard is grounded in that fact that if you took statistics 10 years ago, you had to take calculus first, and the statistics used formal probability … with theorems that built on calculus,” said Uri Treisman, a mathematics professor and the executive director of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s been working with K-12 and university systems to develop a statistics pathway as an alternative to classical calculus.

It’s an idea that others have pushed back on, by situating a high school statistics pathway as either advanced material only suitable for students who have already passed calculus—or a less-rigorous path for students who can’t hack it in classical math.

“Any time you have multiple pathways, the advantaged will capitalize on one and that will become the ‘real’ one,” Treisman said. “If we are going to create data science pathways, they had better be anchored in things that lead to upward social mobility and have a rigor to them. We have to make sure new pathways have at least equal status as the traditional one—and ensure everyone has access to them. If we allow [statistics and data] to be the easy or weaker path, we relinquish the commitment to equity we started with.”

Mixed Signals in Calculus

For a picture of how severe that inequity can get, one only has to look at calculus.

Until about 1980, calculus was seen as a higher education course, primarily for those interested in mathematics, physics, or other hard sciences, and only about 30,000 high school students took the course. That began to change when school reformers glommed onto calculus as an early example of a rigorous, college-preparatory course, said David Bressoud, a mathematics professor at Macalester College and a former president of the Mathematical Association of America, who has examined the evolution of calculus studies.

“The more schools did this, the greater the expectation that they would do it” from parents, and district leaders—and in particular from colleges and universities, Bressoud said. “It’s not just math majors or engineering majors; this has become an accepted requirement for admission to top universities. You are not going to get into Duke if you haven’t taken calculus, even if you plan to major in French literature.”

Today, some 800,000 students nationwide take calculus in high school, about 15 percent of all high schoolers, and nearly 150,000 take the course before 11th grade. Calculus classes have been and remain disproportionately white and Asian, with other student groups less likely to attend schools that offer calculus or the early prerequisites (like middle school algebra) needed to gain access to the course.

For example, in 2015-16, black students were 9 percentage points less likely than their white peers to attend a high school that offered calculus and half as likely to take the class if they attended a school that offered it. And if black students did get into a class, their teachers were also less likely to be certified to teach calculus than those of white students, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis of federal civil rights data.

And despite the rapid growth of calculus as a gold standard, university calculus experts argue it is a much weaker sign that a student is actually prepared for postsecondary math in the science fields than it appears.

In fact, a new report by the Mathematics Association of America and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics found many students who took Advanced Placement Calculus AB still ended up retaking calculus in college—and 250,000 students end up needing to take even lower-level courses, like precalculus or algebra.

In the end, the report found taking calculus in high school was associated with only a 5 percentage point increase on average in calculus scores in college—from 75 percent to 80 percent. Rather, the best predictor of earning a B or better in college calculus was a student earning no less than As in high school Algebra 1 and 2 and geometry.

So if high school calculus isn’t the best indicator of a student prepared for college-level math, what does it signify in college admissions? In a word: Money.

More than half of students who take calculus in high school come from families with a household income above $100,000 a year, according to a study this month in the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education. By contrast, only 15 percent of middle-income students and 7 percent of those in the poorest 25 percent of families take the course.

“Math is even more important to upward mobility now than it was 20 or 30 years ago, because … it’s seen as related to your general ability to solve problems quickly,” Treisman said, adding that as a result, “there’s general anxiety and panic about equity issues for anything new, even though the current [calculus] pathway is a burial ground for students of color.”

Forging a New Path

Statistics and data literacy advocates hope diversifying the field of interesting and rigorous math courses could broaden students’ path to STEM and other careers. As of 2017, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimations showed that jobs that require data literacy and statistics are among the 10 fastest-growing occupations in the country.

“We have two paths forward,” said William Finzer, a senior scientist at the Concord Consortium, which works with school districts to improve their math curricula. “The easier one—like the path computer science took—is to develop a course or a subject area and get schools to give it time. … The problem of that is, it doesn’t spread the opportunity very widely. It becomes concentrated in the small group of kids who elect to take the course—and it’s just one more subject to take.”

Progression for Statistics and Data

EDC’s Oceans of Data Institute is building learning progressions for statistics and data literacy at different grades. Randy Kochevar, who directs the institute, said they are based on the acronym CLIP, meaning students learn how to use:

Complex, multi-variable data (“We’re not just looking at hours of sunlight and heights of bean plants,” he said);

Larger data sets than students need to answer any one question, so they are forced to sort and understand relevance;

Interactively accessed data, rather than sample graphs just written out on paper; and

Professionally collected data that forces students to think about how and why it was collected—and what biases may exist in the samples.

Finzer instead envisions a more holistic approach in which at least one class a year—be it math, biology, or even civics or history—asks students to grapple with making sense of large data sets. Such an approach, he said, “would make a huge difference, because it would mean when you came out of high school, data would not be foreign to you.”

EDC’s Oceans of Data Institute is building learning progressions for statistics and data literacy at different grades. The progression would include concepts in statistics and data literacy, but also computer science—to be able to use common programming and tools used by data professionals—and more philosophical concepts, such as the ethical use of statistics and privacy protections.

10 Great Movies for the STEM Classroom

Common Sense Media

Use these powerful films to teach problem-solving and nurture students’ curiosity.

February 20, 2018

Common Sense Education

If you’re looking to get kids excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), show them the ways that popular media uses — and misuses — the concepts you teach daily. Used as part of a lesson, clips from movies can reinforce topics, spark discussion, and promote new perspectives.

There’s still a great need to introduce kids, and especially girls, to STEM fields like neurobiology, nanotechnology, and civil engineering. Whether it’s a short clip from a Hollywood film to reinforce the concept of gravity or a feature-length documentary that highlights the work of engineers, incorporating movies into your lessons can help kids connect what they’re learning in the classroom to the world at large. And even after the credits roll, you can extend the learning: Create a model, start a debate, or begin a community project that the film — and your teaching — inspires.

Here are 10 film picks that showcase essential STEM skills for school, home, the workplace, and beyond.


The Lego Movie

Grades 1+

This hilarious save-the-world tale appeals to the builder in all of us; creative engineering solutions abound as the heroes embark on their block-building journey.

Teacher tips: Have students identify the engineering design process at work in the movie. Bring some Lego bricks into the classroom (or use Minecraft) and have students develop solutions to common problems, creating prototypes, testing designs, and iterating on their own designs. Students can document their findings and share the highs and lows of the creative process.

Discussion questions: Which of the movie’s creations was your favorite, and why? How might real-life engineers change the design process when they have to make quick decisions? How do the characters in the film demonstrate teamwork, and why is this important for engineers?


Big Hero 6

Grades 2+

In this Disney adaptation of a comic with the same name, a 14-year-old genius invents special microbots to join his brother’s university robotics program. After tragedy ensues, a group of heroes unites and uses their strengths in chemistry and engineering to overtake a crafty villain.

Teacher tips: Try some of the experiments provided by the film’s producers. From there, ask students to choose a problem in their school or community and work together in teams to brainstorm, design, and build solutions using their own unique talents.

Discussion questions: How can engineering solutions and inventions help — and sometimes hurt — humankind? What skills do you have that might help a team overcome an obstacle? Which events or traits fuel each character’s creativity in the movie? Is creativity always positive?


Dream Big: Engineering Our World

Grades 2+

This documentary highlights engineers from various backgrounds — many of whom are women — and the projects they’re designing, from earthquake-proof structures to footbridges in developing countries.

Teacher tips: Use the powerful stories about engineering and robotics clubs in schools to inspire your students to join (or create) their own. Have students research other engineering projects from around the world that are currently in the works, and discuss what kind of global impact they might have. Also be sure to check out the film’s education guide.

Discussion questions: How does engineering affect our everyday lives? How might engineers adapt as technology becomes more prevalent? Why do you think the movie highlights so many women engineers? Why is this type of diversity important?


Hidden Figures

Grades 4+

This inspiring true story of African American women at NASA in the 1950s and ’60s helps shine a light on the need for humans even as technology continues to automate.

Teacher tips: Build off the film’s education guide: Have students construct and solve their own mathematical equations to describe the orbits of planets, or use computer simulations to model Newton’s second law of motion. Talk about how technology makes these calculations easier.

Discussion questions: What are the positive and negative implications of technology taking over roles humans once held? What role did gender play in STEM fields in the 1950s and ’60s? How much have those roles changed today?


Underwater Dreams

Grades 4+

An underdog tale, this documentary tells the story of a robotics team from a lower-income high school that took on university teams — including MIT — in an underwater robotics competition.

Teacher tips: Introduce students to robots they can build and code like SpherolittleBits Invent, and Cue. Have students work in teams to focus on the design process and complete challenges. And while you’re at it, why not start or promote a robotics club at your school?

Discussion questions: What is it about the kids on this team that made them able to overcome such huge obstacles? What makes underwater robotics such a challenging problem to tackle? Besides through robotics clubs, what are some other ways to do STEM activities outside the classroom?


Apollo 13

Grades 6+

A classic and powerful take on the story of the doomed NASA spacecraft, this film highlights the technical issues astronauts faced (along with some of the do-it-yourself solutions they inspired) to land Apollo 13 on the moon.

Teacher tips: Use the rocket launch and reentry scenes to model physics concepts. Have students build or code their own rockets and create journals to document the kinds of small adjustments and iterations needed to create a successful launch. Tip: Pairs well with a game like Kerbal Space Program.

Discussion questions: How has technology changed since the 1960s? Where should NASA focus its efforts in space exploration today? What does the film say about the role of engineers and their ability to use common items to fix highly technical problems?



Grades 6+

While some of the film’s ideas veer into science fiction, there’s enough real science in this edge-of-your-seat thriller to make the heroes’ search for habitable planets worth your time.

Teacher tips: After taking a look at the educator’s guide and some TED-Ed lessons, have students talk about misconceptions and analyze the accuracy of some of the film’s scientific questions. Students can hold a debate around what’s a fact, what may be possible, and what’s simply unattainable.

Discussion questions: What technological issues are holding humans back from interstellar travel? If you were building your own robot companion for space travel, what qualities would you deem most important? What are some ways viewers can separate fact from fantasy in science fiction movies?


The Martian

Grades 6+

This sci-fi space thriller follows an astronaut who’s stuck on Mars and must problem-solve his way to safety using real scientific principles.

Teacher tips: Let students know it’s a movie about risk-taking and creativity and that, although the story is fictional, it’s rooted in scientific fact. Have students take a look at some of the main character’s creations in the movie: a sextant for navigation, his potato farm, or the water he makes from rocket fuel. Next, design a lesson where students are given a limited set of tools, a goal, and some constraints, then see what sort of innovative DIY projects they can launch.

Discussion questions: What is the hexadecimal system, and why is language so important in science and math? How important was it for the film’s main character to keep a log? Why do we not yet have the technology to go to Mars?

If You Build It

Grades 7+

Want to show students that they have the talent and ability to make a difference? Then check out this documentary that follows 10 high school students who design and build a new farmer’s market for their rural community.

Teacher tips: Kids will be inspired not only by the students’ abilities but by their actions. Harness that sentiment to get kids out into their own communities. Have your students interview neighbors, collect data, and embark on a cross-curricular project-based learning assignment to solve an issue. Teach your students the necessary skills to build something, and then set them free to create.

Discussion questions: Which engineering processes did you notice throughout the movie? Were some more successful than others? What obstacles might you face if you were to promote a change at your school?


The Imitation Game

Grades 7+

Cryptologists and mathematicians are front and center in this historical drama about the British government’s attempt to crack the German Enigma code during WWII.

Teacher tips: There’s a lack of Hollywood movies that incorporate math in meaningful ways. Take advantage of kids’ interest in this movie to host a code-breaking challenge event. Or, use cryptograms as an introduction to a matrix unit. If you provide Genius Hour time, let students dig in and explore a topic of their interest. You could also have kids research other examples where STEM skills have helped shape significant historical events.

Discussion questions: Would computers today be able to pass Turing’s test to determine intelligence? Why do we typically see more movies and stories about biologists or engineers instead of mathematicians?

The Future of Coding in Schools


Mitch Resnick, one of the creators of Scratch, on why he thinks coding should be taught in all schools—it’s not the reason you’d expect.

For more than three decades, Mitch Resnick has immersed himself in educational technology and innovative learning models. Now a professor at the MIT Media Lab, and a co-creator of the popular Scratch programming language, Resnick remains a tireless advocate for student-centered education, collaborative learning environments, and the idea that coding is a form of literacy.

His new book, Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity Through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play, is a look at our current educational moment. “Roughly two-thirds of grade school students will end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet,” Resnick contends, hinting at the emerging worlds of artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, and “smart” houses. How do we prepare today’s students to meet that challenge?

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We talked with Resnick about the importance of coding in our school system, his thoughts on the changing roles of teachers, and new ways to engage students—and assess their work.

EDUTOPIA: You moved from journalism—writing about computers and business—to the field of educational technology and learning in the 1980s. What inspired that move?

MITCH RESNICK: The most important shift for me in thinking about computers and learning was actually the spring of 1982, the West Coast Computer Faire—which is like an early form of Maker Faire—and Seymour Papert was giving a keynote address. When I heard Seymour talk, it gave me new vision of what role computers might play in people’s lives: They weren’t just machines to get a job done—they could enable people to express themselves in new ways, and change the way people thought about themselves and thought about the world. That was very exciting to me.

EDUTOPIA: Are we still struggling with Papert’s early insight—almost astonishing at the time—that the computer isn’t just a processor of information but a platform for constructing human knowledge?

RESNICK: Yes I think so, and it mirrors a struggle in the education system that has nothing to do with technology. Many people think of learning and education as a process of delivering information or delivering instruction. Other people see learning and education as student-centered—learning is about exploring, experimenting, creating. Those are very different visions that predate the computer, but of course the computer can fit into either of those two models. It’s a wonderful device for delivering information, but it can also be a wonderful device for creating, exploring, and experimenting.

EDUTOPIA: There are influential people, like Apple CEO Tim Cook, saying, “What we need to do is get coding into every single public school. It needs to be a requirement in public schools across the board.” Is that right?

RESNICK: If it were up to me, I would introduce it. But I want to be careful because I don’t want to embrace it for the same reason that some people might. The first question I would ask is: “Why should we learn coding at all?” Many people embrace coding in schools as a pathway to jobs as computer programmers and computer scientists, and of course they’re right that those opportunities are expanding rapidly. But that’s not a great reason for everyone to learn how to code.

Very few people grow up to be professional writers, but we teach everyone to write because it’s a way of communicating with others—of organizing your thoughts and expressing your ideas. I think the reasons for learning to code are the same as the reasons for learning to write. When we learn to write, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas. And when we learn to code, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas in new ways, in a new medium.

EDUTOPIA: What does that look like in the school system? Does coding sit alongside math and reading? Is it integrated in some way?

RESNICK: These days I talk about our approach in terms of these four words that begin with the letter p: projects, passion, peers, and play. So that’s the approach I would take with coding, but also with any other learning: getting students to work on projects, based on their passion, in collaboration with peers, in a playful spirit. And each of those p’s is important. I think work on projects gives you an understanding of the creative process, how to start with just the inkling of an idea and then to build a prototype, share it with people, experiment with it, and continue to modify and improve it.

We know that kids are going to work longer and make deeper connections to the content when they are passionate about the ideas—when they care—and when they’re learning with and being inspired by peers. And I’d want to have kids experience coding in the same way.

EDUTOPIA: You’re describing a high-choice learning environment rooted in student passion and project work. Where’s the teacher in that mix?

RESNICK: The teacher still plays an incredibly important role, but in this approach it’s not so much about delivering instruction. One role the teacher is playing is the role of connector—connecting peers with one another to work together on solving problems. Teachers also act as catalysts by asking provocative questions: “What do you think will happen if…?” or “That surprised me, why do you think that happened?”

They’re consultants, too, and it’s not just about consulting on technical skills, but also about things like how you continue to work on something even when you are frustrated, or suggesting strategies for working with diverse groups of people. Finally, the teacher can be a collaborator, working together with kids on projects—because kids should see teachers as learners too.

EDUTOPIA: It sounds like a more democratic, open system, which seems to imply breaking down a lot of barriers?

RESNICK: I think breaking down barriers is a good way to think about it. When I think about the type of things that I might change in schools—and I know none of it is easy—a lot of it is about breaking down barriers. Break down the barriers between class periods, because 50-minute chunks are too constraining if you want to work on projects. Break down the barriers between disciplines, because meaningful projects almost always cut across disciplines. Break down the barriers between ages and have older kids work with younger kids—both groups benefit. And break down the barriers between inside of school and outside of school—have kids work on projects that are meaningful to their communities and bring people from the communities into the schools to support the teachers.

That’s one way of dealing with the challenge of a single teacher committed to 30 or more kids. It doesn’t have to be that way. Older kids can be helping younger kids, people from the community can be helping.

EDUTOPIA: A fair question—and a common criticism—is: How do you figure out whether kids are learning anything? How do you assess it?

RESNICK: I would take a portfolio-like approach, looking at what kids create. That’s what we do in our Scratch online community. You can see that a kid has created several dozen digital projects, and you can look through their projects and see their progression. For example, you might see the gradual adoption of new strategies—new types of artwork, but also new and improved programming structures.

I acknowledge that it’s difficult to arrive at quantitative measures, but I also think we each don’t necessarily need to. I sometimes make the analogy to the way I’ve been evaluated here at MIT. There are actually no quantitative measures in the process. Basically, they look at my portfolio: They see what I’ve created, they look at the trajectory and the progress over time, and they ask other people’s opinions about it. You’ll sometimes hear, “Well that’s not serious, we need quantitative measures to be serious.” Are they making the claim that MIT is not serious? I understand the criticism that it’s inefficient, but I think those are things we are going to need to deal with.

Again, it’s a big change and I’m not saying it’s easy, but I do think we need to move in that direction.