Interview: Cameron Wilson of Code.org
Cameron Wilson is the COO and VP of government affairs at Code.org. We spoke about Code.org’s work to expand computer science education in the U.S., including their wildly successful Hour of Code initiative. Currently more than 24 million students have participated in the Hour of Code’s online tutorials. We also talked about the prospects for expanding computer science education in Mississippi.
Interested in joining the movement? Be sure to visit Code.org’s website to get the facts about the current state of computer science education in Mississippi.
Code.org: “What Most Schools Don’t Teach”
You have celebrities, business leaders and politicians from both sides of the aisle speaking out for computer science education. How did you get such widespread support?
WILSON: I think everybody recognizes that, for our country to lead in the world, we have to lead technology-wise. All of the technology that surrounds us on an everyday basis has its roots in computer science, and everybody recognizes that. The political leadership of this country, I think they’re willing to use the bully pulpit to bring that message to schools and to students.
From a corporate perspective, the issue businesses face on an almost daily basis is hiring problems. They need more people that are software engineers, that have a background in computer science to create the applications that they need. And it’s not just the tech companies. Everybody sort of thinks that this is a Microsoft problem or a Google problem. Those companies hire a lot of technology workers, but 70% of the jobs are actually outside the IT field in jobs like manufacturing, the service industry, finance, banking. Computer science is at the core of a lot of services they offer, so that really brings together the corporate community in a huge way.
Were you surprised by how many people participated in Hour of Code?
WILSON: It was amazing. Our goal was to get 10 million students to take the Hour of Code, and we ended up with that within the first three days. We had 18 million by the end of the first week.
The unbelievable reach—teachers getting it into their schools, students participating and parents engaged—was more than we could have hoped for after basically coming up with this idea in July and trying to market it to schools. So it really did explode, and we were incredibly happy at the response.
About half of the participants were girls, another amazing statistic when you consider how many girls have participated in computer science in the past. So all of those things were really heartening.
The data is amazing. But, to me, the most gratifying piece is the outpouring of stories from teachers about how they had never experienced anything like this before. They had students working together. They had entire schools that were participating. They had kids coming back and asking for more.
I think, from our perspective, it really showed not only the capacity for our teachers to really take and run with something like the Hour of Code, but just the massive amount of demand that students have for learning about computer science and creating this kind of technology.
The schools that didn’t take part in the Hour of Code – what do they need to know?
WILSON: Number one, they can do it any time of the year, and they can do it next year – we’re starting the planning for next year. Number two, they can immediately engage students with computer science education through the blended learning course for K-8 students that Code.org offers.
We have about 500,000 students participating in the K-8 program and 10,000 teachers that registered these students, which makes it one of the largest computer science programs in the entire country. So there’s lots of things that schools can do starting now, whether it’s in school or after school. Parents can do it at home, too.
How much demand is there for computer programmers right now?
WILSON: The demand changes from state to state, but it’s usually like two to five times larger for computing than it is for the average of all other occupations. And then nationally, it’s about four times greater.
Computing is a Bureau of Labor Statistics category, so that encompasses a fair number of jobs that are all computing related. So software engineering, both on the applications and operations side, and programmers are the biggest elements of it. But there’s also networking engineers and database engineers that are part of it, as well.
One of the things we point out is, whether you’re going to go into any of those broader IT fields or software engineering – or really any field nowadays – a computer science component at the K-12 level helps provide a really strong foundation for the fundamental knowledge you need.
If you look at projected job growth in STEM-related fields, about 70% of the new jobs and about 50% of total jobs are in computing-related fields.
There’s been a shift in looking at computer science as a “vocational” skill to more of a “foundational” skill. Why is that?
WILSON: I think it’s a bit of both, really. We definitely view it as a foundational literacy for the 21st century. All of the things that you get from computer science, whether it’s understanding how the technology works or it’s actually understanding how to think about problem solving in creative ways —how to deal with data and information—all of those things are really critical for lots of different jobs.
So, for example, a lawyer nowadays might be faced with a privacy lawsuit where he needs to understand how encryption works or how data transfer across the Internet works. I’m not saying he needs to know the nuts and bolts of it, but he needs to have a basic understanding.
Additionally, computer science provides critical-thinking skills and data-analysis skills that are sort of unique in science. So that’s why we consider it to be foundational for lots and lots of different fields. It’s just something that every student should be exposed to.
If you continue on a pathway in your career by taking more computer science classes and get a computer science degree, there are lots of great jobs out there. There’s the knowledge component and the skills component.
How can Mississippians become advocates for computer science in our state?
WILSON: The first thing is to organize – build a community of people who understand the issue of computer science education and want to improve it in the schools.
Connect with educators. With the school districts that are offering great quality computer science programs, you can use them as models to scale up. And then engage with policymakers with the “make it count” agenda, which is trying to make computer science count for math or science credit. That can either be done at the state level or locally and often both. That’s the first step on the pathway toward expanding computer science education. But then they can work with school boards – either the state school board or their local school boards – to begin a conversation.
One of the things Code.org is trying to do is to expand the number of teachers that understand the content knowledge. So we have announced partnerships with multiple districts in the country where we’re actually offering professional development for teachers around our Exploring Computer Science Curriculum and Computer Science Principles Curriculum, and our K-8 curriculum.
So we expand the number of teachers that are out there and expand the number of schools that are offering it. All of those things can be pushed locally as well. I think that would be the major task to any community organizer to help build capacity and infrastructure around that issue and then going off and talk to local school boards, talk to legislators, allow the big issues and the need to understand computer science education in this way.
How do the school district partnerships work?
WILSON: Code.org will enter into a partnership with school districts around the country. We’re just finishing up districts where we’re going to be putting in courses for 2014.
Basically, what we will do is offer to pay for all the teachers’ professional development for computer science courses. We pay stipends for teachers to go through the professional development program. We give all the curriculum away for free to the school districts. And then we handle all the workshop logistics for professional development, both for the online development and in-person.
So that’s what we do on our side. The expectations for the district are that they will put these courses into place, the teachers who go through the professional development program will actually teach the course, and that they will continue to expand computer science offerings within their school district.
That’s the overall approach we take on the education side to help initialize the system to have more computer science education. And then, hopefully, it becomes part of what administrators value, what principals value and what superintendents value, so that it just becomes part of the everyday educational experience.
You’re working to get states to count computer science as a math or science credit, rather than an elective, for high school graduation. Have you run into any resistance to this idea?
WILSON: For the most part, we’ve taught education in this country for 150 years or so roughly in the same way. When new subjects like computer science come into the education mainstream, there’s often not a very good picture about how to treat that subject. I think there’s a growing recognition and general acceptance that computer science should be part of a student’s general experience or part of the core subjects that students should expect to be exposed to. We’ve seen very little resistance to that idea. The question really comes down to how you implement those programs at the local level.
We’re up to 17 states plus the District of Columbia that allow computer science to satisfy a math or science credit. And that’s just largely been an awareness effort. Since we’ve really focused attention on this in the latter half of 2013, we’ve had five states change their policies, either from a legislative or a regulatory perspective. And that’s happened in red states, blue states, from a variety of actors. So you see wide support for it because it’s really just making people understand and be aware that computer science should be treated as part of the core.
Who ultimately makes the decision about graduation credits?
WILSON: Each state is different, and each state handles graduation requirements differently. Take the state of Washington, which took a legislative route that was passed by the house and senate and signed by the governor with huge bipartisan support. They legislated that local school boards would have to treat computer science as a mathematics or a science credit depending on how the local school board wanted to implement it. So that’s the legislative route.
Maryland passed legislation earlier that called for the state board of ed to review their overall graduation requirements for mathematics. But in the process of going through that, the state board of education added computer science to the mix for allowing it to count toward a mathematics credit. So that’s a regulatory route.
If you look at Tennessee, they were another one where the state board of education simply passed regulations to make the shift. So it depends on where the levers of power lie, and it depends on whether there are actually statewide graduation requirements.
Take a state like Colorado. Colorado is a completely local-control state. They don’t have any statewide graduation requirements. So you actually have to go district by district to have this discussion.
What are the next steps for expanding access to computer science in the states?
WILSON: Code.org’s goal is to expand access to computer science education for all students. So, from our perspective, that means making sure that states have good professional development programs for computer science, that school districts are actually putting in high-quality computer science education courses, that the state has standards that help define and frame what computer science education should look like at the local level, and then, additionally, that states have teacher certification programs that are connected to content knowledge.