Talent-starved industries push for more computer programming education in high schools

Talent-starved industries push for more computer programming education in high schools


Forget the big talk about computer programming jobs.

Leave off the tales of talent-starved tech industries, juicy salaries and perks.

For 16-year-old Ruskin High School students Dennis Baleta and Harold Burgos, this moment was all about changing that tiny piece of the world currently at their fingertips.

They pondered. Harold tapped at the keyboard. New computer code flowed into the program on his screen. Dennis reloaded the simple computer game onto his tablet.

Boom. They had changed the color of the ball. They had altered its speed.

This wasn’t theory in a text or a teacher’s lecture. It wasn’t a maze of binary ones and zeros.

It’s like “bringing an idea to life,” Harold said.

Not enough students are getting this kind of introduction to what is one of the fastest-growing and essential career fields, Ruskin teacher Lewis McKenzie said.

“I didn’t learn this way,” he said.

And that, says McKenzie and nervous tech industry recruiters, has a lot to do with why computer programmers are so desperately short in number compared with what industries need.

It’s why Ruskin High School and a dozen other classrooms in the Kansas City area are among 60 nationwide developing and trying out a curriculum to get more high school students learning the many languages of computer coding.

“You let them get in there and mess around with it,” McKenzie said.

For too long, the recruiters’ approach with teens has relied on ephemeral promises of high-paying jobs, then putting a lecturing math teacher before them, “like we were teaching them Calculus IV,” McKenzie said.

And even when math and science education has moved toward hands-on lessons, the world of computer coding typically remained shadowed in the aura of monks toiling in tall towers.

The pilot course, as part of Project Lead the Way’s nationwide engineering curriculum, aims to make coding tantalizing to Dennis and Harold and the dozen other students in the Ruskin classroom.

“Ideas are not confined to your head anymore,” Dennis said. “You can program it. It can lead to something physical that other people can see and use. You update it and modify it. You make it.”

Unless young people are on board and enjoying the high-tech ride, industry recruiters’ pitches probably won’t work.

The Mid-America Regional Council’s recently released Economic Outlook regional survey estimates that in the Kansas City area alone, there will be about 2,000 job openings in areas of computers and math. But it estimates only 500 people are looking for jobs in these areas.

Nationally, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology’s 2012 report projected 1.4 million job openings for computer specialists by 2018. Yet ACT college entrance exam surveys find only 2 percent of high school graduates expressing an interest in computer and information technology fields.

Many voices in the industry are calling it a crisis, said Vince Bertram, president and chief executive officer of Project Lead the Way. “There is great national interest,” he said, in the program’s effort to spawn computer coding in high schools.

Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and others pitched the computer-coding cause in a video aimed at getting high schools to rethink their programs. The San Francisco-based Code for America frames computer coding skills as essential to the nation’s civic health in the Information Age.

NBA star Chris Bosh of the Miami Heat promotes coding for students in the video, which has received more than 11 million views. He wrote in Wired magazine: “Learning to code is simply about understanding how the world functions.”

Project Lead the Way is drawing on easily accessible programs to throw as many as nine computer coding languages at students.

They start with simple ones like Scratch, then move into App Inventor, with educational programs developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then another and another.

The aim isn’t to master any one program but to nurture the skills and logic to learn them — and more.

Companies such as North Kansas City-based Cerner Corp. create their own computer languages to meet their specific needs, said Mary Howard, who is teaching a pilot class at Kearney High School.

“I spent 22 years in the (information technology) world,” Howard said. “When you move between jobs, you learn a new language. When you upgrade software, you’ve got to help people understand new systems. You’ve got to have the logic.”

The classroom exercises from the start give students a chance to see that they can shape creativity and innovation in just about any direction their interests lead them.

“They get to make an app for their phone that they can take home and show their parents,” Howard said. “That’s cool.”

Cerner, keenly aware of the growing shortage of computer and information engineers, has been a major backer of the pilot program. It’s hosting a regional training session for teachers this summer and providing some of its own engineers to work with them.

“We have to change the way we are educating our students,” said Robin Smith, a specialist in talent development at Cerner. “We have to capture their interest (and make technology) not just something I use, but something I can create.”

So many students from early ages are intimidated by math and science. They think it’s beyond them.

McKenzie dangles the prospect of making phone apps in front of students to give computer coding a try. It’s not necessarily going to be easy for you, he warns them. But that’s how you learn.

“You have to struggle,” he said. “You have to learn how to ask questions.”

But they also get to see real action on their screens as their struggle brings them answers.

The detailed work in refining programs is “painstakingly hard,” said Malcolm Strickland, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer helping the Ruskin students.

He’s still taking upper level college courses in programming, he said, and he can see students growing discouraged by so much language theory without a taste of creating something of their own.

High school programs like the pilot course have to put teens in control and let them see how computer coding is on its way to underlying nearly every industry, innovation and recreational interestlying before them.

Done right, plenty of young people will want to be where Strickland is, he said, asking: “Am I going to change someone’s life? Make life easier? More managed?”

Get them started, and students will spur themselves on, Howard said, as hers do in Kearney. The same went for McKenzie’s students taking their seats at their computers in Ruskin.

Without any prodding or direction, they tossed down their backpacks, called up their programs and burrowed in, back to work.

The Kansas City Star