Well, a whole school year’s gone by since we started the marvelous mayhem that is Spark-O-Matic in early September of 2016 at Medgar Evers Library. And fittingly enough, it’s been most educational, both for mentors and for students, in the exciting months since.
Together, even without a bright, shiny digital creativity lab, we’re exploring how to design websites, make videos, produce soup commercials, delve into logo development (see this post’s featured image), create captivating personal stories with Lida Burris that get seen up on the big screen, and much more.
We’re also learning that sometimes, it’s important to put away your digital devices, even during a digital arts class (maybe especially during digital arts class). And that it’s good to unplug for a while — perhaps do some letterpress at the Mississippi Ag Museum and regain your connection to the real world. After all, one essential key to achieving digital literacy is knowing how to strike a healthy balance between time online and off.
Most importantly, though, the students are discovering how to collaborate together, make connections, share ideas, find their voices and freely express themselves in an increasingly loud, noisy world that can all too often drown them out and mute their creativity. In fact, my favorite times at Spark-O-Matic are when a few students who are inspired and passionate about something—like transforming their own illustrated sketches into digital art—take the lead and share their skills with others. There is such talent in this group, such incredible potential.
These are the times, too, when the class becomes a true melting pot, simmering with ideas that are made better with each new insight offered up by the students themselves. This is peer-to-peer education at its finest. The way the kids guide each other in solving problems, overcoming technical issues, troubleshooting, and tackling details like shading and perspective is amazing.
And now we’re embarking on two new projects that could top them all: One, a cool music video project propelled by the theme, “What Medgar Evers Library means to me…” Kicking things off a couple weeks ago, we discussed what form such a music video would take. Together, we made a list of what we like best about this library, which included: Talent shows, Game day, Movie Flick Saturday, Spark-O-Matic, Creativity, Community, A place of peace, A place to speak your mind, Family, Superheroes (drawings and people), Voting, Babysitting, Volunteer, Conversation, Escape, Family… and so on.
Angel, a rising 9th grader at Callaway High School, came up with a winning idea: Have the words and phrases from our list illustrated on handmade cards that students, in groups or individually, hold as they pop up around the library. The plan is to get those action-word pop-ups on camera, then create a soundtrack with masterful music assistance from Will Jolly over at Brown River Sound. Will’s already stopped by to scratch beats and get us going on the music track.
Another big project underway is something in partnership with James Bridgeforth from the Mississippi Heritage Trust (mississippiheritage.com).
The Heritage Trust is about preserving Mississippi’s historic places. One of those places is Medgar Evers’ home. So, this summer we are embarking on a Spark-O-Matic documentary about Medgar Evers’ home that will created by our students.
Medgar Evers: Where he lived then. Where he lives today: In the hearts and minds—and lives—of the children and families served by the Medgar Evers library.
We will tell that story through: 1) A visit to Medgar Evers’ house where we will gather video footage, and 2) Interviews with the families and kids who come to the library, talking with them about Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
Starter questions for our patron interviews:
Who is Medgar Evers?
What did he do?
How does what he did live on today?
In our first lively discussion about Medgar Evers, his family and his home, the students added the question, “What is civil rights?” to the mix. That’s a huge question we’ll continue to explore through the project. Once complete, the students’ documentary will be shown at a Mississippi Heritage Trust gala event in December of this year.
We’re going to keep the creative sparks flying over the summer at Spark-O-Matic. While the school doors are closed, the library’s will be wide open. Big things are happening. And you’re invited join this crazy, creative melting pot, Tuesday nights from 5:30 to 6:45.
“You can kill a man but you can’t kill an idea.” — Medgar Evers
Alex Mullen at the MWB office. Photo by Tate Nations.
Alex Mullen is a medical student at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine who, in 2015, became the first American to win the World Memory Championships, ranking as the highest point scorer in the competition’s 24-year history.
Alex holds the Guinness World Record for most digits memorized in one hour (3,029), and he can memorize the order of a deck of cards in 17 seconds. In 2016, Alex launched Mullen Memory, an initiative he started with his wife, Cathy, to promote the use of memory techniques in school classrooms and universities.
What’s your background? How did you get interested in memory techniques?
MULLEN: I was born in New Jersey. But then I came down to Oxford when I was four. I went to Oxford High School and then Johns Hopkins for college.
The first time I ever found out about memory techniques was when I was a junior in college. Before that I had an average memory, and didn’t really know much about memory techniques. I dabbled with acrostics and stuff like that.
But I came across this TED talk by Joshua Foer [TED Video: Feats of Memory that Anyone Can Do], and I was just kinda blown away by the ingenuity of it. I learned about the “memory palace” technique, and just I couldn’t believe that this kind of thing existed and I hadn’t heard of it or that it wasn’t a bigger part of education. I was a little frustrated with my own memory at the time, and I think that’s part of the reason why I latched onto it. I read Foer’s book “Moonwalking with Einstein” and some other books.
So I was originally interested because I wanted to improve my memory for school. I felt like if I had a better memory, it would be helpful. And, then, I thought maybe I’ll do this competition type thing where you memorize numbers and cards and lists of random words, names and faces – I’ll do that and then try to get a better understanding of the techniques, so I can go back and use it in school.
I competed at the U.S.A. Memory Championship in 2014, and I got 2nd place there, which was way better than I expected. I’d been training, but I didn’t think I’d do as well as I did. So it was definitely exciting for me and motivating to continue practicing and doing bigger competitions.
I competed a few more times, I think five or six in total now. Then I had a lucky run and won the World Championship in China last December.
When I got to med school, I struggled at first a little bit, which was disheartening because I was having a hard time applying the techniques to what I was learning. So I struggled a little bit, but then I experimented. My wife also uses the techniques – so we sort of experimented together and worked some things out. Eventually, we got to a point where we were using them for pretty much everything we were learning and finding it very helpful since med school is obviously heavy on memorization.
We’ve been using the techniques for med school for about a year and a half now. I’m still competing. My next one is probably the U.S. Championship again in May.
I saw you have a record for memorizing digits?
MULLEN: Yeah, I have about six or seven U.S. records and one world record, which is the “hour digits” event. It sounds incredibly boring – and it is. You sit for one hour and they give you a big long number to memorize, and I was able to memorize 3,029 digits. Just the process of sitting down for an hour and then spending another two hours to recall it, which is how the event works, was pretty tough for me – someone who’s slightly ADD and can’t really focus and sit still for a long time.
Using the memory techniques has helped me develop my concentration. I don’t think I would have otherwise been able to sit for three whole days in China just memorizing the entire time. So the numbers were definitely a challenge, much harder, from a concentration standpoint, than memorizing one pack of cards.
You did get there very fast, though. How were you able to go from reading a book to being a memory champion in such a short period of time?
MULLEN: I think I trained well. I trained consistently, which I think it an important thing – between 30 minutes to an hour a day, usually. You do that over three years and you get pretty good.
There are a lot of people who do that also, who haven’t done as well as I have. And I think that’s just a matter of training effectively. Trying to identify weaknesses and improve, just the same as with sports. But that’s really it. I don’t think I have a very special memory. I forget where I put things all the time.
What’s your technique for memorizing cards and numbers?
MULLEN: For a lot of the events, you’re using basically the same technique, which is the memory palace technique. Most of the events are “sequential events” where you have to memorize the order of a deck of cards, the order of a long number, or the order of a list of 300 words. It’s all the same technique, which is the memory palace. You imagine a physical place that you know – you can pick these places ahead of time and have pre-planned routes, like sort of stops on the way in the memory palace. Then you visualize things in those places. Then you go back and see those images, as you go through the palace and recall the information. [Editor’s note: This technique is demonstrated in Mullen’s video, “The 20 Word Challenge.”]
There are differences in the way that people do it – how they convert cards or numbers into those images. Because, obviously, it’s not enough to just visualize the two of spades. Some people will turn that card into, for example, Michael Jackson. In my case, I’ll take each pair of cards and combine them into one image. So there are differences like that, but the general technique people use is the memory palace for most of the events. That’s basically how I do it for studying for school, too. There are a few others events that aren’t sequential – there’s a names and faces event. What people do there is just look at the face and try to find some sort of distinctive features, and then they’ll visualize something that represents the name and attach it to that feature somehow. So like if I were to do you, for instance, I might look at your hair and imagine Randy Johnson, the pitcher that played for the Diamondbacks for a while – maybe he’s throwing a baseball, and it’s zooming right across your hair like that. It’s really just about trying to be imaginative and creative with your visuals.
Anything that gives some meaning to an otherwise abstract thing is useful. But, in general, pictures are especially helpful because our minds tend to think that way. Pretty much everything in terms of the mnemonics that I do is based on some kind of visualization. Occasionally, I still use acronyms. Occasionally, I still use acrostic type sentences of phrases that have some sort of mnemonic meaning. But at least for me, the bulk of it is memory palace or just visualizing something in an empty space.
I still use repetition. I don’t think any memory technique is perfect. Even if I encode something in a memory palace, I’ll still go back and review it. If I come back in three weeks, it’s pretty much gone. But if you revisit it a couple days after, maybe a week after that, a month after that, then you’ve pretty much got it in longterm memory. The “spaced repetition” review process is helpful, regardless, even if you’re not using mnemonics. Using it in combination with mnemonic memory techniques really kinda kicks it up a notch.
A lot of people don’t really see the practical value of memorization. What real value does it offer?
MULLEN: At first glance, I think a lot of people would think, sure, it would be nice to have a better memory. You could use it to remember people’s names, presentations, facts – you know, it would be helpful. But at the same time, we live in an age of Wikipedia and smart phones, the Internet – does that really matter anymore?
Keep in mind, it’s not about trying to memorize everything. I don’t memorize the numbers in my phone. I don’t have any interest in doing that. I use memory techniques for specific things like remembering people’s names, which is helpful. But the real benefit to me is learning. When you encode, for instance, everything you’re learning in microbiology, for example, into images that you can recall easily, as you move forward, you recognize connections between the things you’re learning more easily.
But then there are plenty of details that, at the time, seem out of context. You can’t really understand them intuitively, they’re just facts. So what I like to do is convert those things into these visual images and remember them that way, and then down the line when you’re able to recall that information and keep it at the front of your mind, you can give context to those things that didn’t have context before. It’s all about seeing connections between things.
How do you think memory techniques could be beneficial for students?
MULLEN: One thing that I think is really the cornerstone of memory techniques that I think is helpful just to understand is this idea that creativity matters. When I was in school, in high school, I would use acronyms and I would feel that’s it’s helpful. But in a sense, I was unsure as to whether or not is was “cheating.” Nobody told me “you should use this” or “you can do this” or “you can visualize things that are sort of weird and help you remember things. Nobody really tells you that’s okay.
Trying to associate things with seemingly disconnected things is an important skill and students should know that it’s okay to do it. So just encouraging people to think creatively or try to associate connections between things, I think would be helpful and I’d like to see more of this type of thing in schools. Not even getting into the whole memory palace technique necessarily – that’s obviously very helpful, but there are more basic techniques than that.
So what do you hope to do with Mullen Memory?
MULLEN: I’ve been at this for about three years now, and pretty much from the beginning I wanted to start putting materials online so that I could have to have a platform to teach people how to use the techniques. Even though the book, Moonwalking with Einstein and Foer’s TED talk are so successful, the idea still is not out there enough and still not being used in schools.
Memory techniques are one of those things that are easy to understand but difficult to master. Take the “20 Word Challenge” video I did. It’s something that pretty much everybody can do. But then – and I’ve talked to some people who have done studies on this – at some point, people start to run into roadblocks trying to actually apply the techniques to learning. And they just give up.
That’s understandable. It happened to me. I obviously had a little more motivation to keep pushing on it. But it’s nice for people to have somebody in front of them who can say, here are some things that I struggled with. Here’s how to fix it. When I was coming up, trying to learn this stuff, there were plenty of videos out there saying here’s how memorize a list of 20 words. They may show you how to memorize somebody’s name, but they don’t teach you how to learn exam material. So I wished that I would have had some real examples of people doing that. And that’s something that I struggled with. But there are certain tricks that we use to make that process as easy as possible. So that’s what I’m trying to do with the website – to give people real-life examples and tutorials to solve some of those questions and basic roadblocks that I ran into.
Is it going to be a business for you?
MULLEN: That still remains to be seen. I really was motivated to get it going because of the world championship, and so it’s still getting off the ground. But, just in the first few weeks, the feedback has been really good. People like the videos. I get a lot of messages – every day. We’re taking a year off of med school next year, and I’m hoping to do some presentations and workshop seminars. I’m doing one actually in two days. Just to start to get the word out there just as much as I can.
My main passion with this is trying to get it into education because I think it can be really helpful. It’s certainly changed my life academically. I’m really focusing on schools and universities, rather than businesses, which is different from what a lot of other people do. My big message is that people can do it. A lot of people see me and think, okay, you can do it – you’re the world memory champion. And that’s really the reason why I made the 20 word challenge video. Just take 5 minutes, try it, and you can do it.
Media literacy makes for smart kids at Operation Shoestring
There’s no doubt that Star Pool’s children are growing more media savvy by the day. And not just the two grade school-age boys she has at home who already do homework on the computer and have assignments requiring a good deal of Internet-based research.
As Assistant Coordinator of Project Rise at Operation Shoestring, Pool has many other bright students that she helps guide in the ways of interactive media.
“In today’s society, everything is basically focused on media. Homework, watching TV, everything,” Pool says, adding that when kids don’t know their way around the increasingly mesmerizing media landscape, “it’s kind of numbing. I just think it numbs some of their senses.”
Yes, the vast array of media technology now available can seem mind-boggling, to say the least. And it appears that a large number of educators across the country would agree.
In fact, one recent survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts of secondary-school teachers found that 87% feel that “these technologies are creating an ‘easily distracted generation with short attention spans’ and 64% say today’s digital technologies ‘do more to distract students than to help them academically.’”
Okay, aside from being a major distraction for a whole generation, media does have its good side. Media literacy is increasingly important because technology offers kids such a wide world of benefits. As Pool notes, “It helps with personal life. It helps with finance. It helps with reading comprehension. It helps with math skills.” In short, Pool says, “It helps with a lot of the basic tools that they need to become successful children, teens to adults.”
Pool and other teachers in Operation Shoestring’s afterschool and summer programs for younger students aim to “enhance some of the things that they already know” and to “help them get the basics, the foundation, the skills that they need… once they leave elementary.”
In addition to providing mentorship, academic enrichment, and media literacy training to kids K-12, the non-profit organization strives to be a resource for the parents of children served, too. “We inform parents on what they need as well, through different workshops that we have,” notes Pool. Becoming tech-savvy themselves “allows parents to go on and look at the children’s grades, to go on and see what the homework assignments are” and just stay better in tune with what’s going on in their kids’ lives.
And, at the end of the day, ensuring media literacy for Jackson-area youth fits surprisingly well into the overall mission of an organization aimed at teaching children and inspiring families. Media skills training, as Pool puts it, accomplishes both.
“We put the child at the center of everything that we do. And once the child has gotten it, we know that they’re making it better for the families, which then extends out into the community.” And that, says Pool, “helps everyone rise.”
Mitchel Resnick, PhD, is a LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research and director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT Media Lab. His research group developed the “programmable brick” technology that inspired LEGO MindStorms robotics kits. More recently, the group developed Scratch, a popular programming environment for kids. Dr. Resnick received the 2011 McGraw Prize in Education and was listed by Fast Company as one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business.
We spoke about the importance of creative learning, effective strategies for digital literacy, and the impact of initiatives to introduce computer science into more classrooms.
Dr. Mitchel Resnick. Photo by Joi Ito.
What is the Lifelong Kindergarten Group?
RESNICK: My research group, the Lifelong Kindergarten Group, develops new technologies and new activities to engage people in creative learning experiences. So we help people learn through designing, creating and expressing themselves.
We call the group Lifelong Kindergarten because we’re inspired by the way children learn in kindergarten. In the classic kindergarten, children are constantly designing and creating things in collaboration with one another. They build towers with wooden blocks and make pictures with finger paints—and we think they learn a lot in the process.
What we want to do with our new technology and activities is extend that kindergarten approach to learning, to learners of all ages. So everybody can continue to learn in a kindergarten style, but to learn more advanced and sophisticated ideas over time.
I understand there’s a long history at MIT of using computers as a tool for education.
RESNICK: It goes all the way back to the 1960s with Seymour Papert, who started working on the Logo programming language. It was a way for kids to be able to write computer programs to control things. Now, at the time, most people thought it was crazy because computers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Seymour recognized that computers were going to become less expensive and would proliferate throughout the world. So he saw there was an opportunity to use computers as tools for young people and that young people would have access to that technology. He knew that the best experiences would result from not just using computers to deliver information, but letting kids take control of the technology so they could create things.
Seymour would say it’s important that you don’t want the computer programming the child; you want the child programming the computer. You want the child to be in control. So Seymour started these ideas all the way back in the 1960s. His ideas then started to get out into the world when personal computers became available in the late 1970s into the 1980s. The Logo programming language became one of the most popular ways children were using personal computers in schools in the 1980s.
I was deeply influenced by Seymour. He was my most important mentor, and I continue to be inspired by his ideas about children learning by designing and creating things. Our work on LEGO Mindstorms and Scratch were deeply inspired by the ideas from Seymour Papert.
Why is it important to provide kids with opportunities for creative learning?
RESNICK: The process of making things in the world—creating things—it provides us with the opportunity to take the ideas that we have in our mind and to represent them out in the world. Once we do that, it sparks new ideas. So there’s this constant back and forth between having new ideas in your mind, creating things in the world, and that process sparking new ideas in the mind which lets you create new things. So it’s this constant spiral of creating and generating new ideas.
We live in a world that is changing more rapidly than ever before. Things that you learn today could be obsolete tomorrow. But one thing is for sure: People will confront unexpected situations and unexpected challenges in the future. So what’s going to be most important is for kids to be able to come up with new and innovative solutions to the new challenges that arise. That’s why it’s so important to develop as a creative thinker. Just knowing a fixed set of facts and skills is not enough. The ability to think and act creatively will be the most important ingredient for success in the future.
You’ve spoken about “learning to code” versus “coding to learn.” What’s the difference?
RESNICK: Many people are starting to get interested in learning to code, or learning to program computers. One reason a lot of people are interested is because it provides opportunities for jobs and careers because there’s a growing need for professional programmers and computer scientists. So that’s one reason for learning to code—there really is a need and there are economic opportunities.
But I think there’s a much bigger opportunity. I often make the analogy to learning to write: Some people who are learning to write will become professional journalists or novelists, however most people aren’t going to make a living just through their writing. But we still want everyone to learn to write, because once you learn to write, it lets you organize your thinking, and it helps you express your ideas in new ways. I see it as being the same with coding. Although coding does provide some economic opportunities for jobs and careers, I think the most important reason for learning to code is it lets you organize your ideas and express your ideas.
Coding lets you learn many other things. So that’s why I think what’s most important is not just learning to code, but coding to learn. As you’re learning to code, you’re learning many other things.
What kinds of skills does coding teach?
RESNICK: You learn how to organize your ideas. That is, you take complex ideas and break them down into simpler parts: How to identify problems and then “debug” the problems. How to take the ideas of others and reformulate those ideas to meet your needs. Those are all common things that people do when they’re coding. But those are also common things you do in all types of problem-solving activities and design activities.
Even if you’re doing something that has nothing to do with coding—if you’re organizing a birthday party for a friend or developing a new marketing plan for your company—you use some of those same ideas. So those approaches, which you can learn through coding, can then be applied to all different kinds of activities both in your personal life and your work life.
Should every child learn to code? Should coding be a school subject like algebra or chemistry?
RESNICK: I do think every child should learn to code, and I would approach it similarly to writing—the same way we teach children to write and then let them use their writing in all other courses. You learn to write and then use your writing in writing book reports and writing science reports—you use it in all other subjects. And I think similarly, it would be great for all kids to code and then use that knowledge in many other classes.
Events like Hour of Code have raised the visibility of coding and given people an opportunity to get some sense of what coding is all about. But it only will be meaningful if there’s a follow-up and follow-through. If people take that initial spark and turn an hour of code into a day of code or a week of code or a month of code where they continue to explore the possibilities of coding.
So it’s the same thing. If you just spend an hour learning to write, it wouldn’t be so useful. On the other hand, if that sparks your imagination and then you continue to do more things with it, then it becomes meaningful.
How is Scratch changing the way people think about computer programming?
RESNICK: We emphasize that Scratch is a way to express yourself creatively, to express your ideas. It’s also a social activity: You can share your projects with others and learn from what others are doing. Many other organizations that are trying to help people learn to code don’t focus on those ideas. They often are just focused on students learning the concepts of computer science or learning how to solve puzzles with programming.
We take a different approach with Scratch. We see Scratch as an opportunity to express yourself creatively and to work collaboratively. I think it’s really important to have that as a core underpinning for what coding is about. Our ultimate goals with Scratch are to help young people think creatively, reason systematically and work collaboratively. We think those skills are incredibly important in today’s society.
In Mississippi, we have some big challenges relating to education and poverty. Can computer science be a game-changer for us?
RESNICK: I think it’s always dangerous to assume that there’s any one thing that’s going to make a big cultural change. But it could be one element.
Before you can think about changing living standards, you need to change learning standards. I think computer science provides new opportunities to help people become better learners. I think the thing that’s going to guarantee success in the future is people developing as creative thinkers and creative learners. Doing creative work with technology through learning to code is one pathway to that. It’s not the only pathway. But I think what’s probably the most important thing is having young people grow up with opportunities to think and act creatively. That’s the key.
Would you say that computer science can engage students that may otherwise be not that interested in school?
RESNICK: I do think it’s incredibly important to build on young people’s interest. People are going to be most interested in learning when they’re working on things that they really care about. The computer, if it’s used the right way, has the opportunity to engage kids in doing things that they really care about. But I want to add that doesn’t happen automatically. The computer can also be used in a way that kids won’t be interested in.
So it’s not just about using the computer—it’s the way in which it’s used.
There aren’t very many credentialed computer science teachers out there. Are credentials necessary for teaching computer science to young people?
RESNICK: I agree with you that there’s a challenge. Many teachers don’t have much background in this area. I think further into the future, we’ll get more teachers over time with more expertise. But, for now, I think there are great resources for teachers to learn enough to help young people get started with coding and using computers in creative ways.
I would also encourage schools to support teachers in learning new things so that they can help support these young people—and also hiring new teachers who can bring new expertise into the schools. This isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s a long-term process.
How should K-12 schools approach the teaching of computer science?
RESNICK: We should make sure all subjects are taught in a way where kids get a chance to learn through creative expression. And not just computer programming. In a science class or physics class or biology class, teachers should allow students to have creative learning experiences.
We should rethink all school subjects so there are opportunities for children to learn by designing, creating, experimenting and exploring. That’s also true when we use computers. We should use computers to design, create, experiment and explore. But we should apply those ideas to all classes and all media.
So you’re saying more hands-on learning?
RESNICK: Well, it depends on what you mean by hands-on. I would emphasize learning by creating and experimenting. If you put your hands on something, and you’re just following the instructions to build a model, then that’s not a very good activity even though your hands are involved. What’s important is to give kids the opportunity to create things and experiment with things, to use their imaginations and to think creatively.
What are your thoughts about getting more women and minority students involved in computer science?
RESNICK: I think that’s linked to what we talked about earlier with supporting people and building on their own interests. Often, in all school subjects, including particularly computer science, you’re taught in one way which might be appealing to some people but not others. We need to make sure we provide multiple pathways into activities.
For example, when we developed Scratch, we made sure that people can use Scratch to do all types of different things. You can make a game, you can make a story, you can make an animation, you can compose music. That’s because different kids have different interests. If we only had computer programming for making games, that would be appealing for some kids and not for others. We wanted to be sure to provide multiple pathways so that kids from all backgrounds and all interests are able to follow their interests and become creative learners.
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.
Maris, West & Baker, with assistance from, the Mississippi Department of Education, Innovate Mississippi, the Mississippi Development Authority and Venture Technologies, is sponsoring a series of computer programming (coding) workshops for students and teachers in Mississippi during the month of November, which has been designated “Innovation Month” in Mississippi.
Why is an advertising agency promoting k-12 coding? The way we see it, teaching kids to code is an economic imperative for participation in the computer-driven digital economy that’s fueling growth and development around the world.
According to the computer science advocacy group, code.org, our country is projected to have a shortage of one million needed computer science graduates by 2020. While other countries around the world have expanded opportunities for early computer science education, computer science has actually been in the decline in America over the past ten years. Promoting computer programming education is vital to American economic interests, and it can be an absolute game-changer in Mississippi.
To imagine the impact computer programming skills can have on our state, consider the following:
• Apple’s App Store has created nearly 300,000 jobs in the U.S. according to the company figures. Considering, Apple represents just one segment of the fast-growing market for mobile apps, it’s clear that the popularity of mobile devices is driving significant economic growth.
• The American computer gaming industry now rivals our movie industry. It took the game Call of Duty: Black Ops II just 15 days to pass the $1 billion mark in gross sales. That’s faster than the record achieved by Avatar, the highest grossing film of all time.
• Increasingly, the world’s largest and most powerful companies are in the software business. Think Microsoft, Apple, Google and others. Those companies that are not in the software business depend on proprietary software for their daily operation and economic vitality. In the words of serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist, Marc Andreesson, software is eating the world.
We need only look to our next door, Louisiana, to see how other states are positioning themselves to spur software development. The state is investing $15 million over the next ten years to increase the number of computer science graduates at LSU. In September, the state broke ground on a new $55 million urban development in downtown Baton Rouge that will include a new IBM Services Center. The development is expected to create 800 new direct jobs.
But success in the software world doesn’t require that type of investment. Knowledge and creativity are the critical assets, not money. Mississippi’s great musical invention, the Blues, was first played on cheap guitars purchased from the Sears’ catalog and front-porch diddly bows. From there, the blues took the world by storm. Our next great revolution could owe its existence to a $300 laptop. Coding, in that sense, levels the playing field. If you “know the code,” anything is possible.
Let’s dream big and make innovation happen on that scale here in Mississippi.