From Boomers to Zoomers: Gen Z embraces computer science, programming


In the 1980s, Baby Boomers eagerly anticipated the release of the first portable computer: a bulky, 25 pound device with a screen that was only five inches. The applications were difficult to use and often impractical for nonprofessionals. Four decades later, their grandchildren wake up every morning with access to a complex, user-friendly computer that weighs less than half a pound and fits into their back pockets.

   Generation Z grew up witnessing the results of groundbreaking computer programs, driving youth to develop an interest in the possibilities that coding offers to revolutionize their daily routines and create future opportunities.

   Over the past decade, computer science, or the study of computers and programming, expanded greatly. Programming is the process of creating a new functionality for a computer or app through specific programming languages, known as coding. These languages are a set of typed instructions that implement algorithms, which are specific procedures that solve well-defined computational problems to determine the functionality of an application.

   Often, children gather interest in computer science after their parents introduce them to the topic.

   “I have been interested in computer science for as long as I can remember. My dad worked in a field closely related to programming, so he was the one who exposed me to the computer science world,” Acalanes junior Nora Macarewich said.

   Entertainment driven by computer programs furthers the growing number of teenagers interested in learning how to code for themselves.

   “I have definitely [noticed a rising interest in computer science], especially since we’re using more apps at our age. There’s more interest in the surrounding elements of [computer science], like video games or other apps. I was playing Minecraft when I actually first started coding on an extension of that game,” Coding Club Founder and Acalanes junior Clement Chow said.

   As teenagers can directly experience the practicality of computer programs, whether through video games or social media apps, some experience a desire to create programs of their own.

   “I think a lot more people are either seeing how useful [computer science] can be, or they just want to apply it. I think media is affecting their interest because students see what computer science can do, and that kind of glorifies it in a way,” Acalanes junior Osanna Deng said.

   Individuals who follow this desire and learn about computer science enjoy the ability to see the end results of the programs they create.

   “It’s really fun. With coding you can make anything and do so much stuff just from your house. Usually you have to be like 30 years old before you can make an impact on the world, but with coding you can be any age and you can be anywhere. You can do anything,” Coding Club President and Acalanes junior Andrew Zheng said.

   Despite not all students delving into computer science, most still recognize the importance of computer programs in everyday life.

   “As students, we have to use computers for our everyday classes. People in my grade play video games on their phones and laptops. I know on social media people enjoy posting about their lives and sharing anything they think is significant. And that all comes from somewhere, programmers and coders work to do that. I don’t know that much about computers but I also see why it could be useful to know,” Acalanes freshman Cedric He said.

   Students who learn computer science often use codes to simplify various aspects of their daily lives.

   “I would just program the [light] switch to turn on and off automatically so I could control that on my phone. Then I started going deeper and maybe I could use this program to give me a daily routine, and help with that by creating an app,” Chow said.

   In addition to using programs for convenience or fun, students use computer science to assist them with school projects.

   “I’ve made an app to help me with my reading and writing assignments, as well as other schoolwork, and I’ve also made a website and things like that,” Zheng said.

   In 2019, the California State Board of Education responded to students’ increasing interest in computer science by developing a plan to implement a computer science curriculum for every student. Although this plan is not currently enacted, some computer science teachers see this requirement as a necessity for teenagers in the 21st century.

    “I know that the state of California is working on creating computer science standards. At some point in the next couple of years, computer science will become a mandatory course just like English. It’s really disheartening to realize that in the year 2022, a student can graduate from high school and have zero idea how the internet works,” Acalanes Advanced Placement Computer Science A teacher Jennifer Gilson said. “I would love to see every student taking an introductory computer science course, not necessarily because everyone needs to learn how to program, but because everyone should have the basic understanding of how computers work and how they impact us.”

   Currently, Acalanes offers three computer science courses: Introduction to Computer Science, Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles (APCSP), and Advanced Placement Computer Science A (APCSA). In the past few years, Acalanes experienced a considerable increase in the number of students enrolling in these classes.

   The College Board provides more than one Advanced Placement (AP) computer science classes to allow students with varying levels of coding experience to learn about computer science. While APCSP teaches students basic knowledge of how to approach algorithms and how coding works, APCSA teaches students about a specific language of coding.

   “The College Board saw… students that don’t necessarily want to take a traditional programming class but are interested in technology and want to understand better how technology works, how programming works. They instituted the Principles class [APCSP], I think around 2016,” APCSA teacher Dan Appel said.

   In recent years, Acalanes experienced a considerable increase in the number of students enrolling in these computer science classes.

   “When I started here, we had three sections of Introduction to Computer Science. We had about 90 to 100 kids sign up for that. Now we have four sections of a semester course, and we have three to four sections every year of our Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles. We have one to two sections of Computer Science A, so roughly three times more of the sections that we had when we started,” Appel said.

   Despite these course selections, some students agree that following California’s plan to require computer science courses may be beneficial to all students.

   “I think it would be really beneficial to students who wouldn’t take it otherwise. Their jobs and work will almost always need computers so it would definitely be helpful later in life to have a basic knowledge of how the things you’re using work,” Acalanes sophomore Avery Ives said. 

   Conversely, some students express that a standardized class is not necessary for an individual to start learning how to code.

   “The criteria to get started is getting lower and lower. On Swift Playgrounds 4, which Apple just released a few months ago, you can create apps on your iPad, and you can publish them to the app store. Before, you needed a thousand dollar Mac or PC just to get started and write your first line of code. But with these new advancements, anyone can get started,” Zheng said.

   Students who want to learn about computer science outside of the classes that Acalanes’ offer can also join the Coding Club.

   “I have friends who wanted to do something like this but they didn’t know where they could apply it [programming] to because classes are limited. So I thought maybe I could do something where I could help others by creating a place where we could go beyond the boundary, and beyond what class teaches you and help nurture those ideas. We participate in hackathons and do our own coding and program development,” Chow said.

   Whether they do it in school or at home, older generations recognize that teenagers are now learning about computer science at a younger age than people would decades ago.

   “We used to teach the very old people, graduate students. Now very young people,12 year olds are learning how to [create and manipulate technology] …. There are many things that, 10 years ago, only graduate students would know what that was, but now, my nephew began doing it in elementary school,” Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Professor Chris Adkesol said.

   Schools such as Carnegie Mellon University are adapting to kids’ rising interest in computers by creating classes that engage students in developing technologies, like Artificial Intelligence.

   “It has been computer science that they’re interested in, but recently Artificial Intelligence has been introduced. That [the number of students enrolling] is definitely increasing because it’s new. A lot of kids grew up interested in computer science and Artificial Intelligence, and that’s actually why we added that major,” Adkesol said.

   Universities are not the only schools implementing new technological classes. Some high schools, such as Rodriguez High School in Fairfield, now offer a video game design class in response to students’ enthusiasm for video games.

   “Now, kids are interested in creating video games because they have been playing them for as long as they can remember. They like finding out how they are built. We wanted to give students a class that they are interested in,” Rodriguez High School Video Game Design teacher Mike Sagan said.

   The goal for many of these classes is to prepare students who may be interested in entering a career in computer science. Entertainment industries, such as video games companies, need more programmers, so students who are interested in entering the video game industry can utilize these classes.

   “I don’t know the exact numbers, but I know that yearly the video game industry pulls in more money than Hollywood does. So they’ll need even more people to do the programming and animating and overall there’s just more to do, and therefore more hiring,” Sagan said.

   Career opportunities for individuals with a knowledge of computer science expand far beyond the video game industry. Now, with individuals’ growing dependency on computers following the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for computer scientists is increasing.

   “[Computer science jobs are changing] because there are a lot more jobs now. You know, the economy goes up and down. “Independent of the pandemic, we would be in an up phase in terms of technology, but the pandemic has just increased the need for technology,” Adkesol said.

   Still, preparatory classes may not teach students about every aspect of computer science. In an industry that is continuously evolving, the standard development and application of computer science will require students in this field to regularly develop new skills.

   “What I tell students, at some point is like, we’re learning [the coding language] Javascript in our class, but the odds are, you’re not going to program in Javascript. If you’re really going to be in the technology field, it could very well be that the piece of software or hardware that you’re going to work on in 15 years doesn’t exist yet,” Appel said.

   As companies compete to invent new technology, the computer science industry tends to hire students who recently graduated from college with a background in computer science because they may offer fresh thinking as well as up-to-date education of the most recent technologies.

   “We’re actually starting to have robots that are outside of factories, and a lot of companies are working towards that and hiring like crazy. Companies like Google, Apple, Amazon are all racing to have interactive agents that will attract you to their particular phones or interfaces. So there’s a big effort there and a lot of hiring there,” Adkesol said.

   Even if teenagers do not plan to work with code directly, many make a connection between the growing presence of technology and the economic opportunities that a basic knowledge of computer science offers them.

   “There’s always more jobs to go for because with new money and new technology there’s always something that can be made or improved on. So I think a lot more companies are searching for people who can program because it’s so applicable to a lot of different things. Even if software isn’t the primary function or purpose of someone’s job, it can often still add to a resume because it’s so applicable,” Deng said.

   As heirs to a world of constant computational development, most teenagers now have near constant exposure to technology. As students grow up in an increasingly technological community, they recognize the value that a knowledge of computers will have in their lives.

   “Knowledge is knowledge, and it’s just really important now with changing technology. Whether it’s good or bad is just how you apply it. You could be a hacker or you could create things that help people. It’s how it’s applied that matters. That knowledge you have, it’s priceless. So it’s worth having,” Chow said.