Deciphering the Code: Why America’s Kids Need to Learn Computer Science

12-13-14 Hour of Code
U.S. President Barack Obama talks with Adrianna Mitchell a student from Newark, New Jersey, taking part in an "Hour of Code" event at the White House in Washington, December 8, 2014. The event honors Computer Science Education Week. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

This week, President Barack Obama typed his first line of code as part of 'Hour of Code', an initiative designed to provide a quick and painless introduction to computer science. The one-hour tutorial program was part of Computer Science Education Week and devised by Code.org, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding exposure to computer science in schools and increasing participation, especially by women and minorities.

Understanding computer science has become increasingly important not only for those who want to pursue careers as programmers, but also for those who want to jump into other fields, which are becoming more and more entangled with and influenced by technology.

Co-founder and CEO of Code.org Hadi Partovi talks about the importance of learning some computer science at an early age and fixing tech’s diversity woes.

How did you become passionate about computer science?

I’m an immigrant to this country. I grew up in Iran and I lived through both the Shah’s regime and then when I was six years old there was an Islamic revolution and a war with Iraq, and it was not a good place to grow up. But my life changed when my dad bought us a computer and my twin brother and I learned computer programming. When we immigrated to the United States, our family didn’t have a lot of money, but this skill that we had learned on our own helped us get computer programming jobs to pay our way through college. Now I feel like I’m living the American dream, having had success in the tech industry. And meanwhile the skill that I learned and the opportunity that I had is still not being offered in the majority of our schools. So I started Code.org to get that opportunity to every student.

What’s the story behind the founding of Code.org?

The initial launch of Code.org was a video featuring Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Chris Bosh, and will.i.am, and a whole bunch of other people talking about the importance of coding and computer science.

The night that Steve Jobs died, like every other American I felt this huge loss of a great American hero. But the other thing that I felt was that I’d had this idea to make this video and now one of the leading cast of characters that I wanted to include in it was no longer even available. That’s why the Code.org launch video opens with a quote from Steve Jobs about the importance of learning computer science. I was just thinking Steve Jobs died 15 years older than me, what am I going to do in my next 15 years to leave a footprint?

Why do we need more people to learn computer science?

The world around us is being completely changed by technology in every field. Whether you want to go into banking, medicine, law, politics, transportation, entertainment, retail. Every single field is impacted significantly by computers and software, and the fact that our schools don’t even teach the most basic course of how computers work and how the internet works seems like a gaping hole in our education offerings.

I mean if you had children, you wouldn’t want to send them to a school that doesn’t teach biology or chemistry or physics. And it’s not because every one of your children is going to become a biologist or a chemist, it’s because they take courses that explain to them how the world works around them. And so the basic understanding how does the internet work, what are the inner workings of an app, those are just as important as learning how electricity works or how photosynthesis works.

Why did you start the Hour of Code campaign?

Nobody needs to be told that technology is important. Nobody needs to be told that technology is changing the world and there are incredible opportunities. What people didn’t recognize is that it’s easy to learn how to program a computer, that it’s fun, and that eight-year-old girls can do it too. Once people’s eyes open up to that—once a teacher sees his or her third graders or second graders can do this—it immediately gives everybody confidence. Students or teachers that haven’t given it a shot, they think it’s rocket science. And then when they see their third grade students’ eyes light up they think why don’t we do more of this? The kids love it and it should be part of the curriculum.

Can you tell me a little bit about efforts to bring computer science education to students across the country?

We are most seen for our Hour of Code marketing campaign, which is just about to reach 70 million students. This week is the one-year anniversary. But the real point of our campaign is to get schools to offer real courses, not just one-hour courses. And our online course for elementary and middle school students just passed 3 million students enrolled, and one million of those are girls, and one million of them are Hispanic and African American. That’s going to make a major change in the diversity numbers of the field.

And then the other important thing is that we’ve now signed partnership agreements with 60 different school districts around the country to add computer science classes as a built in part of the curriculum. And it’s not just that it’s 60 school districts, we’ve signed up all seven largest school districts in the country.

What do those partnerships look like?

The school commits to add computer science to the coursebooks, and to make available the classroom and put it on the schedule. What we commit to is to provide the curriculum and to train the existing teaching staff so that they don’t need to hire new teachers to do it. We are training about 1,000 teachers every month, and we just announced a commitment to have 10,000 classrooms begin teaching computer science this fall, back to school in 2015, and 25,000 by fall of 2016.

Can you tell me a little bit about your efforts to introduce girls and minorities in particular to computer science?

I don’t think its a surprise that girls and African Americans and Hispanics are underrepresented in this field; everybody has now seen the reports coming from the tech companies showing that the average person in tech is a white or Asian male. It’s clearly a problem. The tech companies aren’t happy about it and certainly it seems unfair that some of the most empowering and best paying jobs are being filled by such an undiverse group. But for us the real importance is not just the people who want to go into tech jobs, we believe that a basic understanding of how technology works is important to all jobs.

In terms of what we’re doing to address it there are two major efforts: one is to start introducing it at a younger age in classrooms like elementary school classrooms, where students are not even choosing what course to take.

The second thing we’re doing is partnering with the largest urban school districts in the country—New York, Chicago, LA, Miami—very ethnically diverse districts with a lot of underprivileged kids. Historically 100 percent of those kids have had no access, whether they’re white or African American or Hispanic. These school districts represent about 15 percent of the entire black and Hispanic population of the country that until now didn’t have any computer science offerings in their school.

How is computer science being incorporated?

I can’t give you one single answer because different districts are doing it differently. For example Charles County in Maryland is having every single kid in elementary school learn computer science. Chicago making it a graduation requirement so you can’t graduate high school unless you take an introductory class. Other schools are treating it as an elective, but we’ve also been working at the state level so that it’s an elective that satisfies the math and science graduation requirements.

Does adding computer science mean dropping something else?

I think the students should get to choose. Our recommended model is that every elementary school and every middle school student should learn the really foundational basics and every high school student should have the opportunity to take a dedicated course.

Who covers the costs associated with bringing courses into the school districts?

Right now we’re covering 100 percent of the costs for the training and we’re giving the curriculum away for free. The curriculum will always be free and open source. We’re not sure we can continue to afford doing the training for every district in the country.

Where is the money coming in from?

Our funding comes almost equal parts from corporations, foundations, and individuals. We actually just recently announced $20 million of funding raised to cover expansion in 2015 and 2016. Our top donors right now are Microsoft, Google, Omidyar Network, Ballmer Family Giving, Reid Hoffman, Salesforce.com, and then myself and my twin brother.

What’s the most memorable interaction you’ve had with a child, parent, or teacher since you started Code.org?

Our social media and our email accounts are filled with parents and teachers thanking us so it’s been an incredibly rewarding ride. But the best one I’ve ever received was from a mom who wrote about her nine-year-old daughter. She said:

My daughter is dyslexic and so she’s always had the worst grades in the class and when she heard about the hour of code she came home in tears saying, ‘Mommy there’s one more thing class is doing that I’m going to be the worst at.’ During the hour of code my daughter was the fastest in the class to finish her work and then she went on to the follow-on course that you offer and finished that faster than anybody else as well. And this is not only helped her get involved with this computer programming stuff it gave her the confidence that she can excel and be the best in her class and now we’re seeing all of her grades improve as well.

I can’t say that we’ve done that for every student but it’s just such a meaningful thing to think that we’ve completely changed the arc of a student’s life and that there are tens of millions of students going through this program and getting that opportunity. It’s just been amazing.