Initiative gets kids coding computers

By Lyndsey Layton / The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Millions of students from kindergarten through 12th grade are learning computer code this week as part of “Hour of Code,” a nationwide campaign embraced by President Barack Obama and featuring free tutorials by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft titan Bill Gates that are designed to get U.S. students interested in computer science.

Through its website, “Hour of Code” offers lessons in computer coding that are aimed at every age group and accessible on a range of devices from tablets to desktops. Entire schools have been holding “Hour of Code” sessions for their students; in other cases, students also have been logging on at home.

The lessons teach the basics of computer coding, are highly interactive and do not require fast broadband.

“Don’t just buy a new video game — make one,” Obama urges in the video he recorded on behalf of the campaign. “Don’t just download the latest app — help design it. Don’t just play on your phone — program. No one’s born a computer scientist, but with a little hard work — and some math and science — just about anyone can become one.”

By late Tuesday, an estimated six million students in 167 countries had taken a tutorial, far more than organizers had predicted, said Hadi Partovi of Code.org, a nonprofit organization he founded with his brother, Ali, to encourage computer science in education. Of those participating students, about two-thirds have been from the United States, Partovi said.

Both Apple and Microsoft are hosting “Hour of Code” sessions at each of their retail stores around the country.

Partovi estimates that 15 million students will have taken a coding course through “Hour of Code” by the end of this week, far outpacing the goals of organizers.

That’s a remarkable debut for an idea that was hatched just five months ago and evidence of a thirst for knowledge in a country where nine out of 10 public schools do not teach computer science, Partovi said.

“It’s been a wild ride,” he said Tuesday. “We know that deep in their heart, Americans feel that technology is moving super fast and they’re afraid their kids are going to get left behind. Ninety percent of schools don’t even teach computer science. It’s important to keep teaching biology and chemistry. But in this century, learning how the Internet works, what an algorithm does, is as least as foundational as those other subjects. Not to mention, it also leads to the best jobs in the country.”

More than 60 percent of the participating students were girls, a trend that surprised Partovi. “Two days ago, the number of girls doing computer science in this country was 18 percent,” he said. “This is amazing.”

The $1 million project is funded by Microsoft, Google, LinkedIn and a number of other corporate sponsors, as well as by donations from Gates, Zuckerberg and others.

In addition to the president, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., made videos promoting “Hour of Code,”as did actors Ashton Kutcher and Angela Bassett, singer Shakira and former NBA player Chris Bosh.

The tutorials will remain available to the public after this week, Partovi said. “We’re going to keep it up forever,” he said. “If you did the first hour, there are 20 more hours of tutorials you can do.”