Agents of Change: Two Codes for the Future

And amid all of the noise of online life, students need to master the code of technology and the code of democracy to be effective citizens.

“The reality is that you can’t just ‘like’ and ‘hug’ your way to transformative change,” said DeNora Getachew of Generation Citizen, speaking at the opening plenary of the 2019 College Board Forum. “We live in a noisy moment.”

And amid all of the noise of online life, students need to master the code of technology and the code of democracy to be effective citizens. That’s the animating idea behind College Board’s Two Codes initiative, which aims to increase the number of students nationwide who have mastered computer science and American government. 

“Whatever the concrete issue is, if they can’t connect those two codes and then think about long-term change, then none of this is going to move forward,” Getachew said. Students need to know “that they can actually be change-makers.”

Getachew was echoed by fellow panelists Reshma Suajani of Girls Who Code and Bernard Harris of the National Science + Math Initiative, brought together for a conversation with College Board’s Chief of Global Policy, Stefanie Sanford. Harris is a former astronaut turned businessman; Suajani is a former banker turned technology activist; and Getachew is a former legislative attorney turned civic educator.

All of them argued that today’s students need a mix of tech savvy and civic conviction, able to be more than just passive consumers of technology or casual critics of democracy. Students need to see themselves as shapers of the big forces in their lives, capable of influencing the direction of their government and participating fully in a digital economy.

“The notion of agency is an important one,” Sanford said. “You want students to know things, to know how to do things, and then you want to go do it in the world. That builds the confidence and animates a virtuous cycle to continue more learning and more engagement.”

A key part of the Two Codes is connecting the abstract language of computer science to real-world problems, helping students use technology as a possible solution to community problems. Mastering computer science can “give you a superpower in your arsenal,” Suajani said, citing examples of young women who have emerged from Girls Who Code to tackle persistent inequalities in the tech sector. “It matters who makes the decisions, who creates the next Facebook or Microsoft. It matters who sits in these rooms.”

Building a more inclusive tech sector and a healthier democracy will depend on early exposure in the classroom, said Harris. Not nearly enough students have access to high-quality coursework in computer science or civics, and that gap has lasting effects on who enters the next generation of leadership in both the private sector and government. 

“It’s important for us to inspire them and remind them they can be anything they want to be in life,” Harris said. “We can’t even get there unless we have a knowledgeable workforce, unless we have young people who at least know the basics of education.”

Watch the full discussion here, and email [email protected] to learn more or get involved