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September 22, 2014

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Education:

Breaking the code: District hopes to change perceptions about computer programming

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Teacher Cindy Burkes helps Detonio Moore with his Hour of Coding work at Findlay Middle School Friday, Dec. 13, 2013.

Hour of Code

Rayven Lewis, left, and Gizzle Oreto work on their Hour of Code program at Findlay Middle School Friday, Dec. 13, 2013. Launch slideshow »

The students, brows furrowed, stare intently at their computer monitors.

North Las Vegas school wins prize

Hour of Code is a $1 million project organized by Code.org, a nonprofit organization that hopes to introduce millions of students to computer programming. The inaugural weeklong event was funded by technology philanthropists Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and technology companies such as Google, LinkedIn and Microsoft.

The nonprofit’s goal was to get 15 million students around the world to log in to at least one of Hour of Code’s tutorials. To encourage greater student participation, Code.org offered $10,000 to the school in each state that had the greatest student participation.

Findlay Middle School won code.org's award for having the most students participate in Nevada. The North Las Vegas middle school had nearly all of its 1,500 students participate in an Hour of Code this week. Jhone Ebert, Clark County School District’s chief technology officer, presented the $10,000 check on behalf of Code.org to Findlay teachers and leaders during a school assembly Friday.

At first glance, it looks like the sixth-graders are playing a computer version of Angry Birds, the popular smartphone game.

But instead of aiming aviary trajectories of piglet destruction with the flick of a finger, these Findlay Middle School students are using lines of computer code to navigate a red Angry Bird through an intricate maze to capture the green Bad Piggie.

Welcome to Hour of Code, a national campaign that hopes to entice millions of students across the country to pick up a new language: computer coding.

Organized by nonprofit Code.org and endorsed by the nation’s top educators and tech giants, Hour of Code asked teachers to take an hour out of their school week to introduce their students to the world of computer programming. The campaign was launched earlier this week as part of National Computer Science Education Week, Dec. 9-13.

Nearly 15 million students — kindergarteners to high school seniors from across the world — have visited code.org since Monday to learn the basics of computer coding. The web-based tutorials ranged from playful lessons on coding — incorporating Angry Birds and zombies — in the lower grades to highly interactive introductory high school-level lessons on various programming languages and building smartphone apps.

The Clark County School District, the nation’s fifth-largest school system with more than 315,000 students, participated in the inaugural Hour of Code event. More than 17,200 students from 66 Clark County schools completed an hour of code this week.

The organizers behind Hour of Code hope their new initiative will lure students into science and technology fields, where demand for skilled computer programmers outweighs the supply of educated computer science graduates.

By 2020, there will be more than a million unfilled programming jobs in the United States, representing a $500 billion boost to the national economy, according to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute. America’s lack of computer science graduates has forced many technology companies to look overseas for computer programmers.

To prepare students to compete in a today’s globalized, knowledge-based economy, national educators such as Education Secretary Arne Duncan and technology leaders such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft’s Bill Gates have urged schools to begin teaching computer programming at an early age.

“I think everyone should get a little exposure to computer science because it really forces you to think in a slightly different way,” Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Las Vegas-based Zappos, said in a statement. “It’s a skill that you can apply in life in general, whether you end up in computer science or not.”

Nevada is just one of 10 states across the country that requires a computer or technology credit for graduation. In China, the United Kingdom and Australia, computer science credits are mandatory for graduation.

Despite the Silver State’s career and technical education requirement for graduation — which can be fulfilled through other vocational training — just 3 percent of Clark County high school students are enrolled in computer science courses.

That’s a low percentage compared with the share of technology courses offered in the School District. Of the nearly 3,000 career and technical education-related courses, nearly a quarter of them are in computer-related fields, such as web design, digital gaming, animation and advanced information technology.

Too often, students are intimidated by computer science and technology courses, according to Jhone Ebert, the School District’s chief technology officer.

“They think computer programming is for nerds,” Ebert said. “We need to change that.”

To that end, the School District has installed Wi-Fi-enabled Internet connectivity in all 357 schools and adopted iPad programs in 14 middle schools. The district is also spending $10 million to purchase 14,000 new computers and plans to launch a new virtual middle school to complement Virtual High School — both online-only schools.

“We want our students not to be just consumers of technology but producers of technology,” Ebert said. “We need to grow our own (computer programmers) in the U.S.”

Hour of Code will help change the perception around computer science classes, Ebert said. By introducing students to coding through exciting, interactive — even fun — tutorials, Ebert hopes more students will want to become engineers, computer programmers and scientists.

Hour of Code also represents an easy way for English teachers and first-time computer educators to teach programming. In first-year computer science teacher Cindy Burkes’ two robotics classes, students learn programming at their own pace using online courses.

Earlier this year, Burkes launched Findlay Middle School’s first robotics program. Even though its their inaugural year, the teams have programmed their way into the district’s final competition this month. Hour of Code, which teaches students about computer programming, can help students master programming for robots, Burkes said.

“It gives them an idea of what they’re doing, programming-wise,” Burkes said. “It makes it so that it’s not a mystery to them. They now feel like they can accomplish something.”

Brittany Corcran, 12, would know. The Findlay seventh-grader and co-captain of the school’s robotics team said she decided to take Burkes’ class because she wanted to be closer to her teacher-grandmother.

However, in taking her grandmother’s class, programming robots and computers has become a growing passion for Corcran, who is considering entering a computer science field.

“(Hour of Code) was easy and fun,” Corcran said. “I just like to be a nerd and geek out.”

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