Scott McDonald, an instructional technology coach at Bend-La Pine Schools, is sick of how homogeneous his district’s computer science classes have become.

But McDonald has a plan to increase opportunities and spark an interest in computer coding among girls and students of color, who up to now have not been as drawn to the field. At the start of this school year, every middle school in Bend-La Pine began teaching computer science using a free iPad curriculum.

Attracting more girls and students of color to the field of computer science is one of the benefits of a program introduced this school year. For the first time all of the middle schools in Bend-La Pine offer the same computer science curriculum.

“The reason we have this focus at middle school is we’re trying to create a pathway … that is equitable and it gets all of our kids to at least know and have an understanding of the world of computer science,” he said.

Creating a consistent curriculum among Bend-La Pine’s nine middle and K-8 schools was crucial, to make sure each student had the same opportunity.

Some middle schools, such as Pilot Butte, where McDonald used to teach technology, were already teaching computer science before this school year, but each middle school now uses the Swift curriculum on students’ iPads. Swift contains the digital textbook “Everyone Can Code” and Playgrounds, a game in which students solve puzzles and control a character by learning to code.

However, because of how rigorous the textbook can be, most computer science classes offer students “brain breaks.” They program drones or small, spherical robots that can be controlled by a smartphone or a tablet, or engage in non-computer activities that emphasize teamwork.

McDonald said it was important that computer science classes don’t keep kids permanently glued to their iPads: Students also have to learn the skills necessary in computer science careers.

“You can’t just be good at code to be successful in the computer science industry,” he said. “There’s a lot more to it. You will be working in a group, you will have a manager, you will have tasks.”

Each school differs slightly in how it teaches computer science. A couple, like Realms and Westside Village magnet schools, incorporate computer science into their core subjects.

Some of the middle school science teachers had never coded before, McDonald said. To help, Yong ­Bakos, who leads Oregon State University-Cascades’ computer science program, hosted a small group of teachers, most of whom teach math, at his apartment in October to answer any questions and provide tips regarding coding.

Bakos said he is a major supporter of Bend-La Pine’s attempt to diversify the field of computer science and convince students that coding isn’t just for “nerdy, isolated” people.

“When we look at the history of how computing has been marketed, it’s been a boy’s club,” he said. “In order to make sure that women and a more diverse group of students can identify with computer science as a path, it requires us providing those opportunities at a young age, especially before the social pressures of high school start to take place.”

One of the new computer science teachers is Greg Wognild at Sky View Middle School, where he also teaches drama, woodshop and design. His computer science class has an emphasis on problem-solving, and he hopes to help provide his students with a new career pathway, he said. According to Code.org, there are currently 4,701 available computing jobs in the state of Oregon, yet only 834 Oregonians graduated with a computer science degree, and only 19 percent of those were women.

“Seeing how many unfilled (programming) jobs there are, why not have kids learn how to use coding, and have a backup job, even if it’s not something they want to do for the rest of their life?” Wognild said.

McDonald pointed out that there isn’t any statewide support for these computer science classes. Code.org states that in Oregon, there isn’t any dedicated state funding for instructing teachers about computer science, no K-12 computer science curriculum standards and no requirements to offer computer science classes in high schools. A large majority of states, however, have passed at least one of those three, and some — like neighboring states Idaho and Nevada — have passed all three.

State Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, a former Bend-La Pine School Board member, said she thought it “would be wise for us to look into a computer program,” but was worried that a statewide curriculum could quickly become outdated, and would want to look more into any potential plans before diving in.

“One thing I’d be concerned about is that computers are so fast (to update),” she said. “How long would a computer curriculum be relevant?”

One of McDonald’s ultimate goals with the middle school computer science classes is to eventually have them blossom into robust high school classes. Currently, only Summit and Mountain View high schools have computer science, although Bend High will add a class next school year.

“These middle school programs are going to blow the doors open,” he said. I think these kids are going to be hungry for more, and I think we’re going to see some exciting changes at our high schools as these kids come in.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854, jhogan@bendbulletin.com

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