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Christopher Magan, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published May 05 2013

Computer coding goes viral, but not in schools

ST. PAUL – Obi Abulu loves computers.

“He learned to click a mouse before he learned to write,” says Attracta Abulu, the Woodbury seventh-grader’s mother.

But when it came to learning more about how the software and technology inside his computers worked, Attracta Abulu discovered that Obi’s options were limited.

She signed the Lake Middle School student up for community-education courses, and he learned what he could on his own online. That only scratched the surface of the complex coding that makes popular games such as “Minecraft” or “Angry Birds” dazzle the 12-year-old and his classmates.

When a group of Attracta Abulu’s co-workers at Thomson Reuters in Eagan decided to offer computer-coding classes for about 50 middle-school-age children of their colleagues, she jumped at the chance for Obi.

“I knew it was something he would really enjoy,” she said.

By developing those classes, Thomson Reuters programmers joined an informal worldwide initiative of programmers who are working to teach students the language of computers.

“We have to take some of the mystery out of technology so students can understand they can learn to control it,” said Rick King, Thomson Reuters’ chief operating officer for technology. “We want to stimulate more people to think about technology careers.”

Rebecca Schatz, who advocates for more computing education with the website CodeSavvy.org, said there is a “groundswell” of similar programmers worldwide working to pass along skills to the next generation. A group recently launched CoderDojo Twin Cities, a free workshop where students can learn to code, build websites and develop games from mentors who work around the metro area.

“Since it isn’t happening in our schools, it’s rippling up from everywhere else,” Schatz said. “It’s high time for it. It is amazing that it’s 2013 and we are not teaching our kids to code.”

Schatz cites research from the Association for Computing Machinery and the Computer Science Teachers Association that found Minnesota students lag much of the nation in access to computer-science courses that would prepare them for jobs in the digital age.

Some of the tech industry’s brightest stars are taking that same message nationwide through the website Code.org. The group includes Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and dozens of celebrities who are pushing for computer-science education to have a stronger presence in U.S. public schools.

They cite statistics that illustrate the high demand for people with coding and other computing skills and the limited ways of acquiring it.

For instance, Code.org projects there will be 1 million more jobs in computer occupations such as software development and programming by the end of the decade than computer-science students to fill them.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has similar projections. A 2012 report found computer and mathematical occupations are expected to grow 22 percent by 2020.

Currently, the median wage for these jobs is $73,000 a year.

Yet middle and high schools across the country offer a handful of computer-related electives for students to choose from. Just nine states allow computer courses to count toward a high school student’s math or science requirements.

That’s not to say computer-science-related classes are not growing.

Lakeville South High School plans to offer a new class called “Engineering Your Future” next year that will give students the opportunity to build a computer and write software, said district Superintendent Lisa Snyder.

But code-education advocates say the number of school courses isn’t keeping up with demand.

Thomson Reuters saw offering the programming classes as a “community service,” given the growing need for workers with programming skills, King said.

“There’s not an oversupply, that’s for sure,” King said. “Everyone needs them, so they are in great demand.”

Programmers wanted to spark students’ interest at an early age, so they decided to develop their class for middle-school students, who typically have to wait until high school to take a programming class, King said.

“We wanted to turn on a little light in their heads,” he said. “I don’t think kids get much exposure to what these type of jobs will be like for them. They come into contact all the time with teachers, firefighters and doctors. This gives them another view of what they can do.”

The class was an eye-opener for Obi Abulu, who said it reinforced his desire for a technology career.

“I think, overall, it was a good class for me,” the 12-year-old said. “I’m planning to become an engineer, but I’m still not sure what type. This not only gave me a better understanding of computers. I know in the future, I may be the one creating them.”

That kind of excitement is what inspired Dan Henry, a Lakeville resident and lead software engineer at Thomson Reuters, to help teach students to code.

“It was something I jumped on. I like to share what it means to be a programmer. I think people are missing out,” Henry said.

The classes were tough, but the students were dedicated and took to it quickly.

“There were a lot of high-fives and fist bumps,” Henry said. “The kids were really psyched.”

Like Obi, Henry developed an interest in computers at a young age and learned as much as he could on his own. Those skills paid off again when Henry helped develop the course curriculum from scratch.

They couldn’t find similar classes for middle-school students to borrow materials or ideas from. “We found virtually nothing,” Henry said.

Thomson Reuters programmers recently hosted a graduation for their young programming students and now must decide a next step. More classes are likely, but company officials haven’t decided if they have the ability to open them up to students outside of employees’ children.

But programmers such as Schatz, King and Henry hope the work they are doing with students will interest other professionals to take the time to offer similar classes in their communities.

“This is one of those things you have to try,” Henry said. “For some people, there is going to be a spark.”