D.C. charter school students get crash course in coding from U.S. CTO Megan Smith

The students at Thurgood Marshall Academy, which received a $10,000 award from Code.org, learned why coding will be part of their future during an event tied to Computer Science Education Week.

Corinne Lestch
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Corinne Lestch Education staff reporter - EdScoop, FedScoop and StateScoop

Corinne Lestch is a staff reporter covering education for EdScoop and its affiliate public sector technology news websites, FedScoop and StateScoop...

Megan Smith spoke to students at Thurgood Marshall Academy on Tuesday, Dec. 8. (Corinne Lestch/EdScoop)

At an Hour of Code event Tuesday, high school senior Asia Boulware said she wants to study psychology after she graduates – but lamented that it has nothing to do with coding or computer science.

U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith explained why she should reconsider. "If you use coding, you could see all kinds of insights about people," she told the student. "There’s a lot of data science that, if you use it, you can help a lot of people by looking at patterns. You can see how people interact, or maybe even thinking about communities, like our community here – but what about the community online and on Snapchat?"

"That’s interesting to see the connection," the 16-year-old said.

Smith made the trip to Thurgood Marshall Academy, a charter school in Anacostia, a neighborhood in southeast Washington, D.C., to help celebrate the school's $10,000 award from Code.org, which will be used to buy Chromebooks. The timing was apt – on Monday schools across the country kicked off Computer Science Education Week with coding programs and tutorials.

"We need to teach this stuff a little more like we teach music and gym so [these students] can participate in jobs and found companies and be entrepreneurs," Smith said in an interview with EdScoop. "We need to rip open our cell phones and see the computer boards and things inside."

In the next five years, there will be 1.4 million open computer science jobs, but only about 400,000 people will be trained to fill these roles, according to Bureau of Labor statistics. While President Barack Obama is pushing for schools to require computer science courses, it still remains an elective in many districts. At Thurgood Marshall Academy, a law-themed charter school, there are no computer science classes, according to officials there.

From left to right: Pat Yonpradit of Code.org, U.S. CTO Megan Smith and LaTara Harris of AT&T were guest speakers at Tuesday's Hour of Code event. (Corinne Lestch/Edscoop)

"We do use some technology, but it's not necessarily for coding and programming," said biology teacher Erica Culbreath, who applied for the award. "Computer science is an underrepresented field. Even though we're a law-themed school, we don't turn out a bunch of lawyers. It's all about getting exposed to different career paths."

Pat Yongpradit, Code.org's chief academic officer, awarded the check to school leaders and gave students step-by-step instructions on how they can pursue computer science.

"Number one, take a computer science course, either online or here. Number two, go to college or community college and take a computer science class at least, or minor in computer science. Number three, get some kind of internship," he said, encouraging students to email him with questions. "Then all that can end up in a job in the tech industry."

He added later that he could tell he got through to some students, even though they may not have any prior experience with coding.

"I know for a lot of these kids, computer science or their future is the last thing they'd be thinking about. There are much more pressing issues," he said. "But there are some kids who got it. I saw it in their eyes. I saw something connect."

The senior, Asia, said she was inspired by Smith's call to action. Smith, who spearheaded business development for Google before the White House appointed her as the U.S. government's top technology officer in 2014, evoked the name of Grace Hopper, a Navy Rear Admiral who invented the first compiler for a computer programming language.

"It was really interesting to see her get up there and talk about how, even though it may not seem like a lot of women do it, they do," she said. "Females probably think they're at a disadvantage just because they're female, so it's good to know that people are behind us."

Reach the reporter at corinne.lestch@edscoop.com or follow her on Twitter @clestch and @edscoop_news.

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Education IT News, Coding & Gaming, K-12, Policy, STEM, Computer Science Education Week, Thurgood Marshall Academy

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