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Runnin’ Down A Dream

10/09/2017 08:00:00 AM Eastern

Regular readers of this column already know that I have two school-age sons. As of yesterday, which was my younger son’s birthday, they are 12 and 13. Both of them are currently in middle school — one in 6th, one in 8th — and both decided to take Latin to fulfill their language requirements.

They have both heard it all: “Latin?! Why would you want to take a dead language?” “Only the biggest geeks take Latin.” “There is no place on Earth that even still speaks Latin!”

Well (the Vatican aside), most of these points are correct. But when I asked my older son two years ago why he wanted to take Latin, he replied, “I think I want to be some kind of -ologist some day, and Latin will help with that.”

Indeed, both of my boys were dinosaur-obsessed, and then animal obsessed, most of their childhood. Inevitably when you asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up, they answered archaeologist or anthropologist or marine biologist. So -ologist it is.

What struck me is how dedicated they were to science at an early age, and that has carried through now that they have arrived at their tween and teen years.

I couldn’t be happier. I was a STEM kid growing up, though they didn’t use that term back in the dark ages of the 1970s and ‘80s. I loved math and science and assured myself, at a pretty early age, that I would make a hell of an engineer.

So I got accepted to a respected university with an even more respected engineering program and pursued my dream.

And then college physics happened, and then advanced calculus. And I struggled. What came easy to me in high school was a whole different reality when matched against my freshman classmates, who all obviously worked harder at math and science than I did in high school. But I was able to wriggle my way through those classes, with some hard work. But then came the class that pretty much officially ended my engineering aspirations: computer programming.

Now this was 1984, and my computer programming class was in Fortran, that now-obscure language that was, at the time, the primary language of numerical and scientific computing. I was also using a computer without an internal hard drive, as was the norm back then, and we were saving our homework to punch cards. (I know, I’m old.)

What I learned then was that most of my classmates had endured some rigorous computer training in high school. Me? I took one semester of computer lab that taught me the very basics of Basic. I didn’t stand a chance.

I bring this up because although my boys are able to choose from Spanish, French, Italian or Latin for their language studies thanks to living in an area of New Jersey with a highly ranked school district, there are still no official state or national government-sponsored programs for coding in public schools. And that’s a shame.

An educator friend of mine was visiting my house last week and introduced me to some amazing websites: like Studiocode.org and Scratch.edu. These are sites completely designed for kids, to teach computer coding through games and gaming tasks, and they were created by institutions such as Stanford and MIT. Within five minutes on one of them my boys were learning how to control a Flappy Bird by altering its coding. It’s brilliant. And, best of all, it’s all free.

I guess these institutions of higher learning realized it was up to them to catch the next generation of engineers up to speed since the government doesn’t seem to see it as a priority. If that continues, maybe I should steer my boys toward Mandarin instead.

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