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Steve Jobs' Death Inspired Goal To Get Kids Coding


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a few minutes, we are going to tell you more about former Texas governor Ann Richards. There's a new HBO documentary about her, and we are going to speak with her daughter. But first, something we like to focus on a lot on this program, which is efforts to open up tech careers and education to young people. Computer programming is one of the most sought after skills in the job market.

But you might be surprised to know that a majority of public schools don't offer any computer science classes. Today, we want to hear about a campaign to change that and bring coding instruction to students in middle school. Hadi Partovi is the founder of the nonprofit Code.org. That organization recently announced a new partnership program with public school districts around the country to provide computer science classes to more than 2 million students starting this fall. Hadi, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

HADI PARTOVI: Thank you for having me on the show.

MARTIN: And for additional perspective, we've called Brenda Wilkerson. She's a program manager for Chicago Public Schools, which is one of the districts partnering with Code.org. Brenda, welcome to you. Thank you for joining us also.

BRENDA WILKERSON: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: So, Hadi, let me start with you. Why should this be a priority?

PARTOVI: Well, you mentioned the shortage and the sort of - the difficulty of hiring people into computer programming jobs, and that's certainly one reason. You know, the country has unfilled positions in computer programming in every single state and in every single industry. And the gap over 10 years is expected to reach 1 million jobs more than there are students graduating from our schools.

But the reason I'm doing this is because I believe no matter what job you want to pursue in the 21st century, understanding how software and technology works and how to make it is something that every student needs to be prepared for their future careers.

MARTIN: Brenda, you've been working on this. You've been working on initiatives for the Chicago Public Schools. What do you think this partnership will allow you to do that you could not now do or that you haven't been able to do so far?

WILKERSON: Well, this partnership will allow us to move much quicker and reach much - a much broader audience in our school district. We're excited. We've got 400,000 students, and I really believe that this effort - and we're very thankful to Code.org for their support - will allow us to reach those students much faster and on a much grander scale than we could have before.

MARTIN: Now, you're offering computer science now in 25 high schools. That's out of 187. Do I have that right?

WILKERSON: That's correct.

MARTIN: So what will this allow you to do? I think it'll at least - what would you - let me ask it this way. What would you like to be able to do - offer this in every high school even below high school level?

WILKERSON: Oh, that's absolutely the goal. Our goals are to saturate every high school within three years, to add a graduation requirement around computer science within five years and also to introduce computer science as early as kindergarten in our elementary schools, 25 percent of them, within five years. So we have very aggressive goals, and we're very excited to be able to reach them.

MARTIN: Hadi, tell me about that. Coding in kindergarten - is that realistic? Is that a good idea?

PARTOVI: Well, it's totally realistic. There's lots of kids who can try apps that basically teach you the basics and the fundamental concepts even before they learn reading. You know, people's impressions of coding are set by things in the mass media where you see somebody in a basement typing away in a dark room. And the reality is that the model of coding these days is using drag-and-drop and a mouse. A 5-year-old or a 6-year-old or a 7-year-old can get started.

MARTIN: So they're probably already doing it. Kids who have access to certain kinds of computers are in a way kind of already coding. Is that what you're telling me?

PARTOVI: Absolutely. In families where the parents care about this stuff there's kids already trying this out. But the vast majority don't know to do it.

MARTIN: Well, Hadi, stick with me, though, on the resource question. I mean, 'cause I'm sure there are a lot of people listening to this and saying, you know, our schools, you know, teachers love them but, you know - God love them, everybody's doing the best that they can. But with the kinds of resource problems that a lot of local jurisdictions are having now, they're struggling just to provide, you know, the basics. How do you add something like this or how do you even begin to think about something like this as a matter of scale when people are already feeling like they're struggling just to do the basic reading, writing and math?

PARTOVI: So at the elementary or middle-school level, I think learning computer science and writing computer programs actually helps emphasize learning in math because solving a math problem just on a piece of paper isn't nearly as fun as solving a math problem in the context of building a game or creating an animation, especially if you're young and you want to see the results of your work.

At the high-school level, you know, we're not requiring - Code.org isn't saying that every student should be required to learn this work, decided that Chicago's doing that. But we think at the high-school level, you know, students get to choose between biology and chemistry and physics. We don't drop those courses because we want to focus on reading and writing and math. We give kids the choice. And the fact that in 90 percent of schools they don't have a choice in studying computer science, to me, seems a problem.

MARTIN: Brenda, talk to me about what kind of reaction - in the schools where students already have access to computer science courses, how are students reacting to them?

WILKERSON: Well, they're very excited. And that's the thing that makes this project even that much more important and timely. We've seen that students who get the opportunity to do programming find more relevance in all of their learning. There's a maturity that we have seen come across our students in a rapid development when they get to create and they get to understand what it means to be the innovator. We know that students learn how to use technology from a very early age. What we're trying to do is move them into a place where they can choose to be the innovators of technology. And doing so makes it just that much more exciting to be at school. And that's something everyone should be excited about.

MARTIN: So, Hadi, before we let you go, how did you come up with this idea?

PARTOVI: Well, I've been in the tech industry for almost 20 years, and it's always been a mysterious challenge to me why there's not more people getting into the industry. And, you know, the idea came to me literally the day Steve Jobs died. I remember thinking, what am I going to be - what's my footprint going to be in 15 years from now? He was about 15 years older than me. And this is what I settled on at that point.

MARTIN: Well, did you have, like, a eureka moment? I mean, did you - was this one of those things that was data driven, as so much of tech is. You kind of thought, wait a minute. Why do we not have enough computer science graduates? Or was it just a - did it just kind of come to you in a dream? I mean, tell me about that.

PARTOVI: No, it was more just sort of a gut feeling that, you know, I studied this. It helped make my career what it is. I've been very successful as a entrepreneur. And I realized that, you know, this is the land of opportunity. And the American dream is broken if kids don't even have access to the first course that gets you onto the path towards the most successful jobs in the country.

MARTIN: Also, I guess, opens up a whole new universe of idea - innovators and, you know, employees for the industry that is to come. And it's almost like - it's almost like swimming, right, Brenda, that if you don't have access to a pool, how are you ever going to learn, right?

WILKERSON: That's absolutely right. And the earlier students get access to it, the more likely they are to persist and understand their choices and gain confidence in the future.

MARTIN: Brenda Wilkerson is a program manager for Chicago Public Schools. She was kind enough to join us from member station WBEZ. Hadi Partovi is the founder of Code.org. And he was kind enough to join us from member station KUOW in Seattle. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

WILKERSON: Thank you.

PARTOVI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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