The lack of tech talent in Singapore is real and it is further exacerbated by immigration laws that prevent tech companies from hiring the necessary talent from overseas.

This shortage was noted by Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, who said that Singapore “requires a critical mass for the [tech] sector to take off, while we continue to train Singaporeans for those jobs” in an interview with Bloomberg in September earlier this year.

READ MORE: Tech startups lack development talent. Immigration laws aren’t the only problem.

Do current education efforts reflect the importance of programming?

That a greater emphasis has to be placed on programming in education, especially at the primary and secondary levels in order to help develop interest early, is something that the Ministry of Education in Singapore clearly recognises.

Robotics & Maker Academy logo
(Image: RMA)

The $2.8 million dollar Robotics & Maker Academy programme was launched in 2014 as a collaboration between the Infocomm Development Authority and Singapore Polytechnic to give more students the opportunity to learn robotics and computer coding. Many primary and secondary schools now offer Robotics and/or an IT-related club as a Co-Curricular Activity (CCA) for its students.

In November last year, the Infocomm Media Development Authority kicked off its Digital Maker Programme, which aims to “nurture a new generation of digital natives with a passion to create with technology”. The programme introduces “interested primary and secondary schools” and their students to the micro:bit, a mini computer that students can code into a virtual pet, a simple chatbot or even a mini football goal counter themselves.

Front and back view of the BBC micro:bit
Front and back view of the BBC micro:bit. (Photo: micro:bit)

Schools have also started giving students more options to pursue coding as part of their formal education—students of 20 secondary schools can now choose to take Computing as an ‘O-level’ subject. 5 junior colleges–Hwa Chong Institution (College section), Jurong Junior College, National Junior College, Pioneer Junior College and Yishun Junior College–currently also offer Computing as an ‘A-level’ subject.

For now, it seems as if the Ministry’s approach is to introduce programming as an option to schools and their pupils–those who are interested can take it up through ad hoc enrichment programmes, CCAs or even as an examinable subject once they reach secondary school, while those who aren’t can continue to avoid it altogether.

But some have suggested that coding skills ought to be taught as a compulsory part of our curriculum. The argument goes that the world keeps getting more digitised and if we want to instil digital literacy into our children, coding skills must be a corner stone to that project.

READ MORE: Tech Startups: “We’re hiring, but not you.”

Is coding for everyone?

Given that efforts to increase student exposure to programming on an optional basis have already been stepped up, the question the Ministry of Education needs to consider is whether basic programming is essential to the modern student’s education. To this, I am inclined to say “yes”.

Aside from the fact that learning how to code can teach us more about how computer systems work and contribute to digital literacy and a better understanding of the technology that we use everyday, even students who don’t grow up to become software engineers learn other transferable skills by learning how to code.

Two kids working on a motorized car together
(Photo: Frank Wang via Unsplash)

Structured Thinking and Problem-Solving

Before writing a piece of code, programmers have to think about the most efficient, effective and elegant way to solve the problem at hand. This usually means breaking the problem down into separate parts and thinking about how to solve it with the logic of computer systems.

The benefit of systematic thinking in solving problems in our daily lives is apparent, but these skills can be used in the students’ academic lives as well. For example, students who are writing essays, in particular argumentative essays, would benefit greatly from the logical thinking required of them in coding.

Creativity and Self-Expression

Having students learn how to code trains their creativity in two main ways. First of all, the same problem can usually be solved via more than one method. This means that as students consider the problems they are tasked to solve, they are effectively training their minds to come up with the best solution for the problem.

Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, a student who knows how to code can use their knowledge to work on little projects of their own. From creating their own games to setting up their own pedometer, students can use their newfound skills to express themselves and make something they can proudly call their own.

READ MORE: Want to learn coding? Here are 5 reasons you should start with Python!

We should also consider early education a funnel to programming school in the future.

The fact is that the demand for software engineers, data scientists and other jobs that require coding at various levels is increasing year on year. Singapore, and the rest of the world, will only need more programmers over time.

Data-science-and-analytics-landscape-graphic-from-IBM-1
IBM’s statistics on data science/analytics, published in 2017. All financial figures in USD. (Photo: IBM)

If Singapore wishes to produce a workforce that remains relevant, it needs to build a foundation for its students to become programmers. While this move may seem as if it is pigeonholing our students into careers they may not have the aptitude for or be interested in, this is actually something that we already do in Secondary school and Junior College mathematics.

Most students who enter Secondary school spend at least a part of their time learning calculus and those who go on to Junior Colleges find calculus a significant portion of their curriculum, along with complex numbers. These concepts build a foundation for engineering courses later on.

This is despite the fact that most students who don’t go on to do engineering courses never use calculus or complex numbers in their lives ever again. Several years of programming education is at least likely to help students create programmes that automate tasks that are more efficiently and effectively done by a computer.

Given the work force’s need for more tech talent, the transferable skills that learning coding can bring, along with its general usefulness even if students do not become programmers later in life, it is reasonable to suggest that coding be made compulsory to students from a young age instead of merely increasing the opportunities students have to explore the subject.

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(Featured image: Frank Wang via Unsplash)