If you were in Mississippi during late August 2012, there’s a good chance you were watching The Weather Channel and killing time on Facebook. For MWB’s Jana Bell, those two worlds came together in a unique and memorable way when a Facebook page she created, The Landmass Between NOLA and Mobile, to make light of a Weather Channel gaffe that suddenly went viral.
Set the stage for us. What led up to the Landmass page?
BELL: It was 2012, and Hurricane Isaac was coming through. It was about seven years after Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast, so we were really prepared for the worst.
A lot of Mississippians felt like we really got the short end of the stick with Katrina. New Orleans had the big flood, so all the attention was diverted there which you can read anywhere. Governor Barbour handled it well – our state really took care of business and didn’t have the same kind of problems with the hurricane response in Mississippi. But, Katrina’s landfall was in Mississippi. We had massive destruction and many lives lost. We just didn’t get the media attention.
So when Isaac came along, everyone was stuck at home glued to the TV, watching all the updates and worried about this one being another Katrina. But this time was different because of Facebook. Most people weren’t on Facebook back in 2005, but now, in 2012, everyone is talking about Hurricane Isaac online.
I was bored. I was sitting at home, and I was on Facebook as I always was at the time, and I saw a post that caught my eye from a friend – she’s very sarcastic and funny – and the post said “Hey, Weather Channel, that landmass you’re talking about is called ‘Mississippi.'”
So I was trying to figure out what that meant. Apparently, in describing the path of the hurricane, someone on the The Weather Channel mentioned New Orleans, Mobile and the “Landmass” in between the two cities. And so I just decided that I would create a page called “The Landmass Between NOLA and Mobile” as a joke.
When did the page start attracting followers?
BELL: Almost immediately. I set it up and soon after I made it public my friend, Becky, liked the page. From that point on, it just started growing and growing, exponentially. Literally for three days, I sat at my computer and slept very little because I was in awe of what was going on. At the time, Facebook had a counter on pages where you could see the likes as they happened, and it was just ticking. I was getting about a like a second.
Within the first few hours, the page grew to about 10,000 fans. Within 48 hours, we had 52,000 people liking the page. I think it just hit a nerve. On Facebook, I think you either have to make people laugh or piss them off if you want to go viral. And I think, with that page, we succeeded in doing both at the same time.
Pretty soon your page started getting attention off of Facebook, right?
BELL: A couple days after the page took off, a blogger wrote a post, using the Landmass page as a marketing case on how to explode on Facebook. A friend of mine happened to see it and sent it to me. So we popped up a link on the page. People started writing their own stories about the page. People started creating memes. Marshall Ramsey did cartoons about the landmass. People started copycatting the page, which is you know the most sincere form of flattery.
It kept going. There was a girl from Nashville, originally from Mississippi, who wrote a country song about the landmass. It’s on YouTube. There’s now a comedy troupe on the coast called Landmass Comedy. They have a comedy club and people do amateur nights and stuff. So that’s kinda fun. “Landmass” was also the Urban Dictionary word of the day. That was very cool.
One of the neatest experiences happened at a Mississippi State football game. I’m sitting there with my family, and I look across the field on the other side and there was an entire row of students that had their chests painted with the letters spelling out “Landmass.” So I jumped up and run around to the other side of the field, and I tell the guard “you see those kids up there? Landmass is my page, and I need to get to them.” They were engineering students. So I took photos of them and made it the cover photo of the page, and it blew up. All the mamas, all the friends started liking the post, and these kids got to shine. I love the fact that they were engineering students, more than anything, because they don’t get recognition very often.
Shepard Smith did a tirade about the Weather Channel regarding the Landmass, giving The Weather Channel hell about it. I mean that was pretty fun watching Shepard go at it. I was thinking “how did this happen?” It was crazy.
At what point did you decide to open an online store?
BELL: It was shortly after the colleges got involved. Mississippi State had “Hail Landmass,” you had “The University of Landmass” and the “University of Southern Landmass.” People were selling t-shirts to promote their schools. About then I started thinking that maybe I should monetize the page – not really for personal gain, but more to show that we are a giving state. A friend of mine created a Landmass logo and created an online store for me. We put our logo on everything we could think of, from aprons to bumper stickers, key chains, t-shirts, boxers, you name it.
A large percentage of the proceeds went to hurricane relief. Rather than just picking a charity, we put it up for discussion on the page. With input from the community, we finally decided on the Salvation Army of Gulfport because they were in the trenches, and we felt like that money was going back out where it needed to go. We raised several thousand dollars for them.
Did you get any response from The Weather Channel?
BELL: They denied making the mistake emphatically and still deny it. But, yes, I think it got to the point where they were so sick of being bombarded with people sending them the Landmass link and abusing them. They say there’s no tape that shows the mistake – maybe it never existed or it disappeared mysteriously. But so many people said “I heard it. I absolutely heard it.” So that’s one of the great mysteries of the Landmass. Did it really happen? Who knows? Maybe it’s an urban legend. I don’t know.
Jim Cantore finally came to Mississippi and took some pictures with people on the coast. Stephanie Abrams was the funniest. She would emphasize the word Mississippi a little too much to show that we were getting mentioned. She would say things like “blah blah… in MISSISSIPPI.” Like that. And it was funnier and funnier because every time she did it, people would send the video, and we’d post it.
How often do you post these days?
BELL: I probably post two or three times a week. If I see something funny about our state, if somebody sends me a link to something I think the Landmass folks would like, I’ll pop it up there.
We were at 55,000 fans at our highest point. And we’re at 52,000 now, and it’s only because Facebook came in and cleaned house. They came in and cut people that had double accounts or deaths, and so on. We lost probably 2,000 people from that cut. But, even though it’s been over three years since the hurricane, we’re really not losing people.
It’s like my child. It’s like my little child. I don’t care if I get the accolades and the likes and all that. It’s more of a therapy for me to post on there because I may be bored and just want to talk so I post something. All of a sudden all my friends have circled and are laughing with me.
I guess more than anything, for all the hype, it’s been a life-changing thing. There are certain people on there that I feel I know because they’re always posting, they’re always commenting. These are people I never would have met otherwise. I’ve actually made new friends from the Landmass page. It’s been a great experience, overall. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Robert Thompson is interim director of the Mississippi Polymer Institute (MPI). Thompson is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a degree in polymer science and has played a guiding role in the growth of the Mississippi Polymer Institute over the past 19 years. We spoke about MPI, The Accelerator and the role of polymer science in Mississippi’s economy.
The Mississippi Polymer Institute, located within The Accelerator at the University of Southern Mississippi
How did the Mississippi Polymer Institute get started?
Thompson: MPI was established by the Mississippi legislature in 1983. Funding came in ‚Äô93, so we really started up activities in 1993 and have been going strong ever since then. Dr. Shelby Thames, who was instrumental to the polymer science program at USM, also started the Mississippi Polymer Institute.
What’s MPI’s mission?
Thompson: We‚Äôre here to help grow Mississippi’s economy using the resources and capabilities we have here at MPI, as well as those available at the school of polymers and high-performance materials at USM. We make those¬†technical capabilities and resources available to businesses here in Mississippi to help them grow. We provide our technical expertise in polymers for businesses, as well as for startup organizations and inventors.
In layman’s terms, what is meant by polymer science, and how is it important to Mississippi as an economic development driver?
Thompson: Polymer science is the study of the development and use of polymers. You know how you can form a chain with paperclips by hooking them all together? Well, the paperclip is a basic building block of that chain. With polymers, we have what are called monomers and those are the basic unit. You can hook many of those together to form a polymer.¬†For example, polystyrene ‚Äì¬†everybody’s familiar with polystyrene coffee cups ‚Äì the monomer is styrene and polymer is polystyrene.
The thing about polymers is they‚Äôre basically everywhere around you. They’re in paint, on automobiles and housing, in clothing ‚Äì cotton is a natural polymer ‚Äì but you also have things like polyester spandex, Gore-Tex, which is Teflon. They in your shoe soles and automotive tires. There are also polymers in personal care products like toothpaste and makeup. You have Boeing and their Dreamliner, the 787 ‚Äì it has a large bit of composite materials, which also use polymers. So polymers are everywhere you look.
What kind of technical services does MPI provide to Mississippi companies?
Thompson: When we first started out in ‚Äô93, we were largely utilizing the capabilities at the Department of Polymer Science at USM. Over the years, we‚Äôve added capabilities. So now we utilize both the resources that MPI has internally as well as those that the polymer science research center has. We have a lot of highly scientific equipment for physical and analytical testing. It helps you identify stuff, figure out how strong something is, where it breaks, what it’s made of ‚Äì¬†those sorts of things. MPI has been in the prototyping business since around ‚Äô95 or ‚Äô96 in earnest, really. And more recently, we‚Äôve switched over from prototyping to what everyone’s referring to now as 3D printing.
On the consulting services side, we offer personal expertise, which I think is just as important as the equipment. We offer those capabilities to help companies, whether they’re startup companies or established companies, and we also do a lot with economic development agencies. If there’s a prospect or a group that’s interested in the area, they want to know what kind of technological support they can access. For those folks who are interested in moving to Mississippi, we can help them through our consulting services.
Aside from economic development, why is polymer science and the polymer industry so important for Mississippi?
Thompson: Polymers are everywhere. They‚Äôre ubiquitous. The companies producing these polymeric materials ‚Äì whether they‚Äôre making the plastic itself or a coating or composite materials ‚Äì their products touch so many areas. If your¬† product is metal, for example, you‚Äôll need polymers to coat that metal to keep it from rusting. Polymers are important for all of the manufacturing processes. The science associated with it and the skill sets and the type of individuals who work in polymer science all contribute to the economic growth of our state.¬†
How does MPI support innovation in our state?
Thompson: From the start, MPI has been involved, largely through prototyping, with inventors. We see inventors come in who are looking to have a prototype part produced so that they can approach investors. Or sometimes, the inventor has their part and their investors, they‚Äôre just looking for help for how to make their widget, as we like to say.
Four years ago, we moved from the Polymer Science Research Center at USM to The Accelerator in The Garden at USM. The main reason for that move was to help support startup businesses here in The Accelerator. USM has an effort underway to support the research coming out of the university and help those companies that want to be closer to the university to access that research. So we support companies here at The Accelerator, as well.
We have outreach efforts looking at bringing new industry into the state. On the existing industry side, with which MPI plays a big role, we’re helping to grow the folks that are already here. But also there’s that third effort ‚Äì the organic growth portion. We‚Äôve started playing a role with events like Startup Weekend and the New Venture Challenge. I applaud all those efforts, and I think they’re great way to help the state of Mississippi through economic development.
Does MPI have any programs to reach out to students before they get to college?
Thompson: We’re very proud to have helped establish nine high school polymer science programs in Mississippi. We started out this effort around ‚Äô97 or ‚Äô98 at Petal High School. Since that time, we‚Äôve added eight additional high schools across the state. Those schools are Alcorn County, Madison County, Simpson County, Marion County, Hattiesburg High School, Hancock, Moss Point and Pascagoula. And, I’d like to make a plug for the program ‚Äì I want to work with interested school boards across the state to expand into more schools.
I think one of the important things about this program is that students get to experience our industry through job shadowing. They have the opportunity to visit companies in their area and they see what those folks do every day.¬† They can decide to go straight to work when they graduate high school, or go to the community or junior college to develop that additional advanced skill set, or they can go to the university and get that engineering degree or polymer science degree. I think it’s very important that we give high school and younger kids the opportunity to learn about our industry to help them set their direction in life.
Can you talk about some of your favorite success stories that you‚Äôve seen come out of the Mississippi Polymer Institute?
Thompson: I have a lot of favorites. Most recently, on the workforce development side, I would have to say [MPI Workforce Development and Technical Leader] Ty Posey’s efforts building up the composites program with GE Aviation. GE Aviation has a production facility in Ellisville. All of their production employees come through the Mississippi Polymer Institute, as well as Jones County Junior College. There are four classes they take, which give those employees a good foundation in 1) what are high-performance composite materials, 2) what are some of the ways that you manufacture and produce these things, 3) what’s the science behind it. I‚Äôm really excited about that program and we’re proud to have GE Aviation as a partner.
MPI has been doing commercial development for several years. We started out initially working on a project with the James Rawlins’ research group at USM for a coating for Marine Corps uniforms. That was probably the start of that effort. Since that time, we‚Äôve had a lot of successes along the way. Of course, I can’t mention a lot of those things because of confidentiality agreements.
On the physical and analytical testing side, we‚Äôve done thousands of projects in Mississippi. But, recently, last year, we became ISO 17025 accredited.¬† For a university lab to become accredited is very unique.
Why is that?
Thompson: When Dr. Thames helped set up MPI, his intention was that we would exist to help industry. That’s our focus. So we’re out there, every day, working with industry, visiting them, talking to them about the problems that they‚Äôre seeing. The ISO accreditation is very important to those folks because their customers are asking, “How are you having this checked?” They want to know who’s checking it and who’s checking the people that are checking it.
The ISO accreditation means a third-party coming in and, more or less, says the processes that MPI has in place, as well as the techniques that we‚Äôre using, are what they say we‚Äôre doing. Part of it is proficiency testing ‚Äì our test results are compared against numerous other labs‚Äô test results and, basically, you‚Äôre looking for all the labs get the same results. It’s a third party stamp of approval, you could say. It gives some legitimacy to the process you’re using when your laboratory’s testing is accredited.
What else would you like Mississippians to know about the Mississippi Polymer Institute?
Thompson: First and foremost, I‚Äôd like everyone to know that we‚Äôre here to help. Our whole purpose in being is to help grow Mississippi ‚Äì to help further our state.¬†
I would also encourage business folks to come out and take a look at The Accelerator and visit with [Accelerator Manager] Robbie Ingram. And I would encourage people to let us show you around the Mississippi Polymer Institute to see all of the exciting things that we’re doing here.
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‚Äôre 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‚Äîand 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‚Äîcreating things‚Äîit 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‚Äôve 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‚Äîthere 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‚Äôre learning to code, you‚Äôre 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‚Äôre coding. But those are also common things you do in all types of problem-solving activities and design activities.
Even if you‚Äôre doing something that has nothing to do with coding‚Äîif you‚Äôre organizing a birthday party for a friend or developing a new marketing plan for your company‚Äîyou 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‚Äîthe 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‚Äîyou 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‚Äôre 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‚Äîit’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‚Äôll 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‚Äîand 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‚Äôre 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‚Äôre 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‚Äôre 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‚Äôre 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‚Äîteachers getting it into their schools, students participating and parents engaged‚Äîwas 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 ‚Äì 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 ‚Äì we‚Äôre 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‚Äôre going to go into any of those broader IT fields or software engineering ‚Äì¬†or really any field nowadays ‚Äì¬†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 ‚Äîhow to deal with data and information‚Äîall 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‚Äôm 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 ‚Äì 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 ‚Äì¬†either the state school board or their local school boards ‚Äì¬†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‚Äôre 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‚Äôre just finishing up districts where we‚Äôre 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‚Äôve 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‚Äôve seen very little resistance to that idea. The question really comes down to how you implement those programs at the local level.
We‚Äôre 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‚Äôve really focused attention on this in the latter half of 2013, we‚Äôve 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.