Students join coding craze

Clark County school districts strive to teach skills high-tech employers seek

By Katie Gillespie, Columbian Education Reporter

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Clark County school districts are cracking the code of curriculum preparing students for the modern workforce.

Area districts are increasingly adding computer science courses for their students or expanding already existing offerings, responding to the increased need for programmers and developers in Washington and across the country.

Code.org, a national non-profit dedicated to expanding computer science programs, estimates that there are 22,882 open computing jobs in Washington but only 1,212 computer science graduates. The organization estimates those open jobs represent about $2.4 billion in annual salary.

“I think our greatest interest is in being responsive to providing learning for our kids that will prepare them for their lives beyond high school,” said Layne Manning, Vancouver Public Schools’ director of curriculum and instruction.

Vancouver Public Schools, with the help of a $35,000 grant from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, has kicked off pilot computer science programs at the middle school level, and next year will be adding Python courses at its high school campuses. Major websites like Google, YouTube and Instagram are built using that powerful coding language. Evergreen Public Schools already offers two Advanced Placement computer science classes at its high schools, as well as a game design class, the latter of which will be retooled next year to focus on programming. Battle Ground Public Schools will also add an introductory computer science course at its high schools.

Vancouver Public Schools’ goal is to build a multiyear sequence of computer science classes starting from beginner to advanced coding skills.

“We’re committed to more opportunities along those lines, and what we see as student need,” Manning said.

Curriculum allows for teacher training

Vancouver, as well as the Camas School District and Battle Ground Public Schools, will be using curriculum from Seattle company TechSmart Kids. Students learn code through a series of assignments through the web-based program, which are automatically graded. Teachers can set difficulty levels for individual students, meaning those who need a little extra help will get tips and prompts from the program, while removing the training wheels for those students who are a little more advanced.

“Our curriculum has a sequence that allows students to learn, advance and go deeper,” said TechSmart Kids founder Bruce Levin after a presentation about the curriculum at a Battle Ground Public Schools board meeting.

TechSmart also does double-duty as a professional development provider, pulling the teachers from school districts who will be teaching computer science and putting them through a rigourous, 85-hour training over the summer.

Most computer science teachers have backgrounds in math or science, meaning teaching computer science is a new field for many of them. Attracting teachers from the often higher-paying private sector can be a challenge, said Mark Wreath, director of Career and Technical Education for Vancouver Public Schools. Professional development opportunities make it easier for the district to build and keep qualified teachers.

“This is a way we can grow our own,” Wreath said.

Battle Ground Public Schools teacher Sheri Mofford is among those teachers who will be participating in TechSmart’s training this summer. Her classroom at Prairie High School is home to a 3-D printer, a set of laptops for students to use and seating clustered around televisions. Mofford is able to display any student’s screen on those televisions, meaning students can check out what projects each other is working on.

Mofford owned a small web design company before becoming a teacher. Mofford will teach introduction to computer science next year. She’s currently teaching a digital communications class at Prairie High School, where students learn how to use Google tools and Microsoft software.

“We need to start helping them in here in high school,” Mofford said. “They can get some exposure so they have a clear path forward.”