A significant majority of today’s students are interested in learning how to code, but far too few are finding relevant opportunities in the classroom.

In the waning days of summer, the educational division of beloved plastic brick manufacturer LEGO unveiled an intriguing new product, Coding Express. Scheduled to hit the market later this month, Coding Express is intended to help teachers “develop children’s understanding of cause and effect relationships and early coding concepts such as sequencing, looping, and conditional statements.”

Designed primarily for 3- and 4-year olds, Coding Express combines a simple digital app with a physical train set that students can control with color-coded “action bricks.” By placing different colored bricks on the tracks, students trigger different behaviors in the locomotive — red bricks cause the train to stop, blue bricks cause the train to toot its horn, etc.

Of course, arranging a handful of toy bricks is hardly tantamount to writing code, but there’s growing evidence that suggests tools like Coding Express can help lay the neurological groundwork for more advanced learning down the line. “Just as writing helps you organize your thinking and express your ideas, the same is true for coding,” explains Mitch Resnick of MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten research group. “We think coding should be for everyone, just like writing.”

According to research released by Project Tomorrow in December, there’s another group that heartily agrees with Resnick’s sentiment: K-12 students themselves.

Strong Interest Across Grade Levels

The research found that over two-thirds (67 percent) of kindergarteners through second-graders expressed interest in “learning how to write programs to make computers do things, like in Scratch or Minecraft,” an interest that dips only slightly (to 61 percent) among third- through fifth-graders.

Further, 63 percent of middle schoolers and 58 percent of high schoolers expressed interest in taking a class on computer programming or coding either as part of their standard coursework or as an extracurricular activity. These figures have increased significantly since 2014, when just 52 percent of middle schoolers and 44 percent of high schoolers expressed interest in such classes.

This uptick in interest has been driven by a growing acceptance among today’s students that tech-savviness will be one of the most coveted skills in tomorrow’s workplaces. Among sixth- through eighth-graders who claim to be “very interested” in learning how to code, 60 percent agreed that “knowing how to use tech is an important skill for [their] future.” What’s more, 47 percent of the same group admitted that “using tech in school increases [their] interest in learning.”

Perhaps most importantly, the researchers found a direct connection between students’ access to coding classes and their interest in pursuing a career in a STEM field. Among students who had taken at least one computer programming class, 41 percent of middle schoolers and 46 percent of high schoolers reported a strong interest in a STEM career. Among the general student population, only one-third of students reported the same.

Districts Lagging Behind

Despite students’ clear interest in learning how to code, few school districts have invested in the training and infrastructure needed to satisfy this growing demand. In fact, the Project Tomorrow research found that only 8 percent of kindergarteners through second-graders and 13 percent of third- through fifth-graders had received any sort of coding-related instruction. Similarly, a paltry 6 percent of middle schoolers and high schoolers had taken at least one computer programming or coding class.

Ultimately, this “offerings gap” is less a product of districts’ lack of will than their lack of resources. Tech-oriented education is expensive — a single LEGO Coding Express kit runs a cool $189.95. Meanwhile, very few teachers know how to code themselves — and the ones that do inevitably cost more to hire.

To close this gap — and stave off the United States’ impending million-strong shortage of STEM workers — districts need to ensure that they secure every last dollar of funding they deserve. That’s where a tool like Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS platform comes into play.

CheckPoint streamlines district Treasurers’ and Superintendents’ data management processes, guaranteeing that the records they submit to the Department of Education are organized, complete, and accurate. As things stand, most districts need to jump on the express track to innovation in order to meet their students’ evolving expectations, and CheckPoint is the ideal engine to power this tech-driven transformation.