Atlanta company pushes to teach kids computer coding

Every schoolchild needs to learn computer coding as much as he or she needs to learn English, says the president of an Atlanta-based tech company that’s backing up his belief to the tune of at least a million dollars.

"Coding is a language," says Ari Ioannides, president and chief software architect of Emerald Data Solutions, but it's seldom taught, especially in elementary school. The company is sponsoring a nationwide contest in the hope of changing that.

School systems can apply for a grant that will provide a computer science curriculum to teach coding, plus an instructor to help train teachers in using it.

“Our goal is that all elementary school students in the United States will learn coding, and we’re providing the resources to get that done,” he said.

After repeatedly hearing from educators, “ ‘That’s ridiculous, you can’t teach coding’ ” Ionnades said, “We went out with that problem; to see if anyone was doing it.” They found Grant Smith.

Smith was a teacher in an Arizona school district where all students qualified for free- or reduced-price lunches, a measure of poverty. He began teaching coding to primary school students, then implemented coding classes for all 5,600 elementary students there.

Emerald Data Solutions hired Smith to help carry out the vision Ioannides is enthusiastic about.

Now the curriculum is being used in the Park City, Utah, school district in addition to the one where Smith taught in Arizona, and the company is making the curriculum it developed available to any school system for free.

In the grant competition, “we’re looking for economically disadvantaged schools,” whose students particularly need the skills involved in coding, Ioannides said.

“If we can teach those students” in early grades and coding instruction is continued, “they’ll graduate from high school with a marketable skill.”

One of the first steps, he said, is persuading educators that the subject is teachable. He draws a parallel to reading: “How do you teach kids to read? Coding is a language. You have to start with the ABC’s, the foundations of language. Teachers don’t have to be coders; they need to understand the basics to know how to teach it.

“In an age-appropriate manner, we show them the building blocks.” Ioannides cites the example of a robot that might understand four commands. To get the robot to perform a task, say go from here to there and pick up an apple, “What are the four steps? That procedural stepping is actually learning how to code.”

Ioannides began coding with a class in Grady High School about 1973, he said. “I was thinking that … 20 years later this would be standard, and that didn’t happen.

“It’s really alarming,” he said. “So much of our world is dominated by code.” It’s “probably the second-most prolific language in the U.S.”

Interest in teaching it appears to be growing, he said, noting New York City schools have committed to having code instruction built into their curriculum.

When he speaks about it to educators “Their eyes light up,” and he expects a lot of applications by January, when the winning school system will be announced. Those are being evaluated by “a team of educators and professional folks.”

He hopes that “once it gets going it will self-perpetuate.

“We’re committed initially to $1 million,” Ioannides said, for the grant to provide Smith’s work with the winning school system. “We’re not a big company. It’s a lot of money to us.”