Ryan Comingdeer, chief technology officer at the Bend software development firm FiveTalent, took his first computer programming course as a seventh-grader and landed his first job in programming as a sophomore.
This was Comingdeer’s experience as a student in Oklahoma City public schools in the 1990s. Although computer science-driven jobs are among the highest-paying, fastest-growing in the modern economy, the effort to teach computer science and programming in Central Oregon public schools is fragmented.
In Bend, introductory computer science classes are in their second year at Mountain View and Summit high schools, and both schools are offering an advanced-placement computer science class for the first time this fall. No introductory computer science is available at Bend High, the largest in the district with about 1,600 students, or La Pine High School. Crook County High School in Prineville offers introductory computer science. Ridgeview High School in Redmond offers intro to programming, a second programming class and AP computer science. Redmond High does not.
There are practical and philosophical reasons for the gaps. Elementary and middle school days are packed with required curriculum, and to add elective courses in high schools takes adequate equipment and willing, trained teachers, said Kathie Quick, a math teacher at Summit who launched the programming course.
Under the Framework for 21st Century Learning, teachers try to incorporate key skills from programming, such as problem-solving, across the curriculum, said Whitney Swander, executive director of the Central Oregon STEM Hub, which facilitates education-industry partnerships around science, technology, engineering and math for districts in Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties. “Students are learning about coding without knowing it’s coding,” she said.
If the new classes in Bend high schools are any indication, software technology professionals aren’t the only ones who think learning to code is essential. “It’s almost more important than a foreign language,” said Summit High senior Nate Bettesworth. The 17-year-old said he’s not inclined at this point to pursue a career in it, but he took Quick’s introductory class because he wanted to understand the devices and software he uses every day.
Quick now teaches three sections of intro to computer science, which emphasizes building websites and mobile applications, to 105 students, most of whom have no experience with the subject.
Summit and Mountain View this year added AP computer science principles. The new AP course will be offered in 2,000 U.S. classrooms this fall, putting it on track to be the largest course launch in the history of the AP exam, according to a White House news release on its recent computer science education initiatives.
In January, President Barack Obama declared, “In the new economy, computer science isn’t an optional skill — it’s a basic skill, right along with the three ‘Rs,’” according to the release. The Administration points out that in a study of 26 million job postings, half of those in the top 25 percent of pay required coding skills. Yet 75 percent of U.S. schools don’t offer classes in computer science with programming.
The career opportunities are similar in Oregon, where the state Employment Department predicts 19,900 new jobs, or 40 percent growth from 2014 to 2024 in certain computer-driven fields. Those fast-growing jobs include writing software, integrating software and hardware and running data centers.
The average wage in those fields is $103,448 a year.
Those who want to learn computer science or coding will find support among software professionals. Comingdeer’s children attend Trinity Lutheran School, where he teaches an introduction to technology course to fifth-graders, but he said he joined the advisory board for computer science at Mountain View because it was the first local school to reach out to his profession.
The response has been so enthusiastic, said Mountain View computer science teacher Patrick McBrien, a former mechanical engineer, “You almost have to cap it at a certain amount of people.”
McBrien is planning to bring local professionals into his computer lab to offer feedback on students’ work.
Any student who wants to learn more about computer science jobs will have access to a new industry rotation, in which students spend two hours after school on Wednesdays at local companies, said Joi Leahy, school-to-career program manager at Mountain View.
She’s still finalizing the list of participating firms but hopes to offer the rotation in October and eventually expand it to other Bend high schools.
Finding qualified teachers is a stumbling block for schools that want to add courses. Summit Principal Alice DeWittie wanted to add the intro class in 2014 and advertised with the hope of finding a local professional to come in and teach. After she didn’t get the response she wanted, Quick decided to take it on, though she hadn’t programmed a computer since college.
Quick wanted the course to focus on website development, so over the summer of 2015 she took tutorials in HTML and an online course in the Python programming language.
When the class began, the students said they wanted to build smartphone apps, so she took more courses. “I was staying ahead of them by a week or so,” she said.
Comingdeer thinks teachers might be intimidated because they believe they have to be experts. “That’s the thing about computer science,” he said. “It doesn’t take a teacher that knows all the answers. It’s about teaching students how to learn.”
The Oregon Computer Science Teachers Association sponsored a workshop in July with capacity for 70 but drew only 16 teachers from the region, Swander said. The lackluster attendance might have had to do with a lack of advertising, but it also shows that teachers need to hear from principals that they’ll be given the time and resources to teach the subject. “If it doesn’t come from students and parents talking to administrators, there won’t be classes in coding,” she said.
Yong Bakos, a new computer science instructor at OSU-Cascades, hopes to make the university’s Innovation Center for Entrepreneurship a community resource in coding education.
Teachers are under a lot of pressure to integrate coding into their lesson plans for other subjects, Bakos said. “Wouldn’t it be great if (a middle school teacher) could go to a workshop and walk away with curriculum?”
Bakos hopes next year to offer workshops to local educators that will give them ready-made lesson plans they can use in art, physics or other subjects. He also wants to hold short workshops for children, especially in rural communities.
Bakos thinks middle school is a good time to expose students to coding and take away the intimidation factor. There are a variety of opportunities for elementary and middle-school students to get their feet wet with coding in Bend-La Pine Schools. Students at the Juniper Elementary School, which serves as a technology magnet, are programming Sphero, a robotic ball, and several schools across the region participate in a national program called Hour of Code.
While coding activities may impart so-called “soft skills,” such as collaboration or critical thinking, students also find gainful employment when they have real know-how. Bend High graduate Dylan Anderton, for example, began teaching himself to code and build websites as a junior and landed an unpaid internship at FiveTalent after a Bend High parent sent his web development portfolio to a bunch of local tech companies.
Anderton performed well enough as an intern that FiveTalent hired him as a paid intern last fall, while he was still in high school. Anderton, who at one point was on the verge of not graduating from high school, is still working at FiveTalent while he attends Central Oregon Community College, and he said he’s making much more than minimum wage.
“It’s an amazing opportunity,” he said.
— Reporter: 541-617-7860, firstname.lastname@example.org