Code camp may unlock future for Kentucky students

sosborne@herald-leader.comJuly 6, 2014 

At first glance, the kids staring into the computer screens looked like they were consumed playing video games. But they weren't consuming, they were creating.

Campers in the Minecraft Mod camp at Newton's Attic, just one of multiple coding and computer programming summer camp offerings over the summer break, spent last week learning to decipher and create code for the popular game Minecraft.

Celia Zeliak, 12, participated in the camp and says computer-programming skills are crucial for students growing up in the digital age.

"I really think we should do it more often, because coding is a really important thing that we should learn," she said.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates 1.4 million computer-related jobs will be needed by 2020, but at current rates only about 400,000 computer science students will be available.

Legislators and educators in Kentucky have identified the need to foster interest and teach computer-programming skills.

Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, sponsored Senate Bill 16 in the 2014 General Assembly, a measure that would have allowed computer-programming classes to fulfill a foreign language requirement in Kentucky high schools. Although the bill did not pass, Givens said it sparked a much-needed discussion about the importance of computer science education.

"We were able to shine a spotlight on coding for its educational benefits and its employment opportunities," he said. "That was largely what that piece of legislation ended up doing, it created some great debate and discussion and awareness that was not there previously."

Code.org, a national nonprofit organization that advocates computer science education and computer programming or coding, recognized Kentucky in May 2014 for its "progressive state policy to make computer science count" as a core graduation requirement.

Kentucky Department of Education guidance states that based on course standards and the teacher of record, a computer science course can qualify as a fourth mathematics course or an elective science course if it involves computational thinking, problem solving, computer programming, and a significant emphasis on the science and engineering practices from the Kentucky Core Academic Standards.

Nick Such, director of Lexington tech startup Awesome, Inc., has been to about a dozen schools in Fayette County over the past year teaching students coding skills as part of Code.org's "Hour of Code" campaign, which hopes to introduce 10 million students to one hour of computer science.

"Initially coding and what goes on beyond a computer screen is a pretty intimidating thing," Such said. "But I think one thing that really surprised us is when we are able to get middle school and high school students an opportunity to write some code and get them over that initial fear, a lot of students pick it up really quickly."

Awesome Inc. promotes the spread of coding knowledge by offering courses for kids and adults, including this week's Week of Code camp aimed at middle school and high school aged students. Such said the first camp sold out so quickly a second camp was created, scheduled for Aug. 4 to 7.

Such said as smartphones and tablets become ubiquitous, it will be important for future generations to not simply be consumers of technology, but creators who use advancements to solve problems.

"The ability to code allows and enables people to have a bigger impact, you know in just the communities around us," he said.

Such pointed out local organization OpenLexington, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to promote local government transparency and empower citizens through open data, for using coding to make a positive impact on the local community.

"One of the cool things the group has worked on is a trolley tracker app, so you can see where the trolleys are in real time, that's something that really influences people to use public transit more," Such said.

Joanne Lang, executive director of Advance Kentucky, a statewide math-science initiative launched in 2007, said computer-programming skills are increasingly crucial as we move further in the 21st century.

"There isn't a keen awareness of why do we need coding," she said, adding it's "not just web development, although coding is involved in that, but this is understanding the impact coding and software engineers are having on all of our everyday lives, in ways we probably can't even recognize. It needs to be a basic skill that students need to be exposed to, whether or not they become computer scientists."

Only 19 Kentucky high schools currently offer AP Computer Science, but Lang said the College Board is in the process of developing a sequence of courses to cultivate interest in computer science earlier.

"It is designed to be a little more accessible to a larger volume of students," she said. "Where it is about coding but also, about being exposed to multiple coding languages. It's about understanding the value of computer science, the societal impacts of computer science; really making it a more interesting and intriguing course and exposing more students to the value of computer science."

Jeff Sebulsky, director of the Kentucky Department of Education's Student Technology Leadership Program, said students across the commonwealth are immersing themselves in coding, which he calls "the language of the future," outside of class through their involvement with STLP.

"Through STLP we have a variety of different ways that students can get involved with different programming areas, and there's a little bit of a competitive nature to what we do, giving schools the chance to highlight the cool stuff they are doing."

Such said it is important to break the stigma that computer science isn't for everyone.

"Especially for women and minorities, I think it's a huge opportunity," Such said. "They are very much underrepresented nationally and throughout the world. There's no special thing about being a white male with a beard that makes you better at programming. One of the exciting things working with kids, kids don't have these social constructs in their heads. They just look and say, 'Is this something that is fun and interesting and challenging?'"

Sam Osborne: (859) 231-3308. Twitter: @samo430.

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