While most high schools teach an assortment of foreign languages: Spanish, French, German – other types of languages are finding their way into classrooms. Like Java. Never heard of it? It’s basically a language computers speak. At one time, this area was something few kids found interesting. But in the era of video games and smart phones, technology is part of the average students’ everyday life. In the first of a two-part series looking at teaching tech, we look at how District 186 is getting the next generation of programmers ready:
It’s the end of the school year at Springfield High School. Students are settling into their computer programming class, their teacher Jodi Patton stands at the front of the room. She’s smaller than most of her students, just over 5 feet tall, even with the white wedge sandals she’s wearing.
She has an unassuming way with students: open to their comments and questions and happy to let them collaborate with one another. Today, Patton spends a few minutes going over what are called recursion problems. To the untrained eye it looks like a form of algebra or calculus. But what’s likely more exciting to students, is what they are wrapping up for their final projects – their very own coding project. Indigo Lacy is 16, she’ll soon be a junior. Her project involves a moving picture of Sponge Bob which she created on her own:
LACY: “By using the language of Java. Which is a set of different commands that the computer will convert into binary and then convert back so it will understand what it’s supposed to do, so we use this set of commands to tell the computer to do things, like draw a picture or do math or really anything you want it to do.”
She already has her eye on a future where she may be able to use this knowledge:
LACY: “I’m going into physics when I get older, and my mom says that I should probably start by getting a computer science degree, because it’s a much higher paying job, to be honest.”
Indigo and her mom are definitely onto something. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that jobs in computer science will increase nearly 20 percent between 2010 and 2020. A new campaign involving tech whizzes like Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg is urging more schools to teach programming. Here’s Zuckerberg speaking about Facebook’s need for those with a computer science background in a promotional video:
ZUCKERBERG: “Our policy is literally to hire as many talented engineers as we can find. The whole limit in the system is just that there just aren’t enough people who are trained and have these skills today.”
The video goes on to say only 1 in 10 schools across the nation teach about coding. Meanwhile computer science is the highest paying college degree overall and jobs are growing at twice the national average. Code.org is trying to get communities to organize and demand their schools teach coding. The site also provides free lessons.
Back at Springfield High, a new computer programming class has filed in. It gets pretty loud – due to the fact Patton encourages her students to work together. District 186 is ahead of some others when it comes to teaching this material. But the district’s commitment is still limited. Patton is the only computer programming teacher in Springfield public schools. The three high schools: Springfield High, Southeast, and Lanphier all offer two classes students can take. Students at different levels have to double up in the same room. Patton visits all three high schools each day for classes.
While some might say the district should focus on the basics of reading, writing and math, Patton says even students who don’t end up going into computer science can benefit from the logic skills that come with programming – there’s a lot of trial and error involved:
PATTON: “And I don’t think that we have the opportunity to really deeply develop our logical thinking in … other areas of the curriculum in high school.”
Timothy Miller started with coding classes his freshman year. He’s now a teacher assistant and he’s developed his own applications for smart phones – including productivity tools and games. Miller’s already made money off his ventures, and he’ll be going to college for computer science and business in the fall. He says the classes at Springfield High helped him find his passion:
MILLER: “It really sent me down a career path I want to pursue. By my sophomore year of high school I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. And programming is a very interesting field right now.”
Because of the added interest in classes, there will be a third year of programming class offered in district 186 next school year. So far Patton is the only teacher assigned to teach all three at all the high schools. Reporting from Springfield High, I’m Rachel Otwell.