Reading, writing and computer coding -- the basics of the future

Posted Monday, May. 06, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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By chance, Joshua Williams is considering a career in computer programming.

A sophomore at North Crowley High School, Williams needed an elective and there was room in a Computer Science I class.

He signed up and now he’s a student of writing code, embracing a language and culture he previously didn’t know existed.

“At first, I was just placed in this class,” said Williams, 15. “But after exploring programs and building games, I’m really considering becoming a computer scientist.”

Williams and a growing number of other students are learning to code, but many entrepreneurs, celebrities and educators — from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates to actor Ashton Kutcher to pro basketball player Chris Bosh — are pushing for computer coding to join the ranks of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Gates and Bosh tout the need for learning code — writing or designing computer programs — in schools in a video for Code.org, a nonprofit that stresses the need for more computer education.

“A lot of people are scared of it because they think it is a math,” said Hadi Partovi, an entrepreneur and founder of Code.org “It’s a lot more fun than math.”

It makes sense for students to learn more about computers because they are a part of our everyday life, experts said.

“Nearly everything nowadays is based on computers and computer processing,” said Carter Tiernan, an assistant dean at the University of Texas at Arlington’s College of Engineering. “My car has a computer in it. My washing machine has a computer chip in it.”

‘More people can do it’

Code.org says that by 2020 there will be more than 1 million computer jobs than computer science students in the United States. Experts fear that U.S. society will be dominated by users of computers and programs that they don’t understand and haven’t created.

“We are going to fall behind and that is not a position any of us wants to be in,” said Barrett Bryant, chairman of the University of North Texas computer science and engineering department.

To get more students in the coding game, advocates want to dispel the notion that computer science is too hard or math-intensive or a subject for straight-A students.

“Not everybody is meant to be a programmer, but more people can do it,” said G. Lynne Ryan, computer science teacher at North Crowley High School.

Many students end up taking computer science as an elective in high school, but some advocates say it’s time to weave it in more heavily into curriculums and perhaps start teaching it at in earlier grades. Beginning next fall in New York City, a pilot program will teach 1,000 middle and high school students how to code.

More students needed

Code.org wants more states to allow computer science or coding classes to count toward a high school diploma. In Texas, students taking Advanced Placement computer science can already count that course toward graduation requirements.

According to state enrollment data, 73 technology-related courses were offered in Texas for the 2012-13 school year. The list includes technology applications for kindergarten students, digital forensics for middle and high school students, and game programming and design.

Still, Partovi said more students need to be in computer science classes because the nation needs more computer scientists. Last year, 3,614 Texas students took the AP Computer Science exam, Partovi said alluding to results from the College Board. By comparison, 25,701 Texas high school students took the AP Calculus exam.

“Calculus is way ahead of computer science,” Partovi said. “There are not a lot of jobs in calculus compared to the jobs in computer science.”

Partovi said that of the Texas students who took the 2012 AP computer science exams, 142 are African-American and 609 are Hispanic.

‘Teaches you how to create’

High school students themselves are trying get more young people to code.

At Paschal High School, students Amy Kruzick, Erik Nguyen and Willis Harvey share their computer science know-how during a summer camp that covers several areas, including basics and writing programs (camp cost ranges from $60 to $90). Students with an Algebra 1 foundation are encouraged to participate.

The idea is to delve deeper into computer science and go beyond simply knowing how to keyboard or use such programs as Microsoft Office, Nguyen said.

“That type of class teaches you how to use something that has already been created, but computer science teaches you how to create,” said Nguyen, who with Harvey was part of a team that recently won first place in the advanced division of a computer coding competition hosted by Lockheed Martin.

At North Crowley High School, Ryan’s classroom wall shows former students who are training to become computer scientists – from Texas A&M and the University of Texas to the Colorado School of Mines.

“We have jobs out there that are being unfilled – lots of them,” Ryan said. “We are producing way too few graduates with computer science or computer engineering degrees.”

Ryan said students appear to be listening. Next year, about 300 students will be signed up in Crowley schools for computer science classes, up from about 150.

Caleb Skinner, 16, is one. He already knows how to code a little HMTL and C++, but he wants to learn more. Lately, he has been fine-tuning an Android-based app aimed at boosting campus spirit.

“I want to be on the battlefront of technology,” Skinner said.

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675 Twitter: @dianeasmith1

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