This month, 18.5 million students around the globe participated in the Hour of Code, a 60-minute upbeat lesson in computer programming, sponsored by Code.org and funded with $8 million from "tech luminaries" such as Bill Gates, Reid Hoffman and Mark Zuckerberg.
"This is no smarter than this," said Amanda Asbell, director of academic technology at St. George's Independent School in Memphis, Tenn., holding up a chair and an iPad in an animated visit with 5- and 6-year-olds.
"Do you know what makes this smart?" she asked, pointing to the iPad. "The people. People make this smart because people have a brain. When a person wants to make the computer do something, it is called computer programming. When you code a computer, you tell it what to do. How easy is that?"
Today, only about one in 10 students has a chance to study computer programming in their K-12 years. Girls and minorities are significantly underrepresented. This is happening at a time when James Gwertzman, "chief evangelist" at Code.org, said he routinely makes consumer decisions based on corporate websites.
"Software is the competitive advantage these days. When I ship a package, I expect to go on a website, print the address label on my computer and track it online. That is software.
"If you are not a big brand-name company, it's hard to hire good programmers because we are simply not teaching it," he said, pointing to the troubles with the healthcare.gov site.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the nation will have 1.4 million new jobs in computer science by 2020. Mr. Gwertzman said the estimate is low because it doesn't include acceleration in the number of mobile devices.
St. George's will launch its own programming courses over the next year. Some will be stand-alones, but most will be embedded in existing courses.
"We have kids right now going on codeacademy.org and teaching themselves how to code computers," said Will Bladts, associate head. "Our goal is we want to bring this into the school day. Hour of Code was our first foray."