Kids Coding in Tulsa

The United States Department of Labor projects that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings.Yet, U.S. universities are expected to produce only enough qualified graduates to fill 29 percent of these jobs. Why is there such a deficit? Because these skills aren’t being taught, and most students don’t even realize how much they need them.

When Tatiana Rozzell wanted to enroll her middle school-aged daughter in coding classes, she came up with nothing. No one was offering any type of coding class. She found that when it comes to local coding classes, offerings are slim and come with steep costs.

Caroline Nguyen, now with Microsoft, was forced to explore her computer programming options at home. “There were no classes or programs in my school or any of the other schools in the area,” Nguyen said. “I ended up getting a degree in business because I just didn’t think of that (coding) as a career option.”

Both women have made it their mission to change this. Rozzell founded the organization “Learn to Code” which offers classes in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript programming specifically to girls, while Nguyen is in charge of Community Development at Microsoft, which offers coding classes to all different types of students in the Tulsa area.

So what exactly is coding? John Hale, professor of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the University of Tulsa describes coding as “Using a programming language to deliver instructions to a computer for telling it how to 1) solve a problem or compute an answer, 2) interact with a user, and/or 3) communicate with another machine.”

How does one even begin to learn such a broad skill? “We start by teaching the basic algorithms,” Nguyen explained, “then we move on to the different languages like JavaScript, HTML, and others.”

Though those terms may sound like a foreign language, Nguyen, Rozell and Hale stress that it is a certain way of thinking that is easy to navigate once it is grasped.

“Coding is trial and error,” Nguyen said. “The commands work or they don’t. But seeing these kids realize they can think this way, and when they get into the thinking, it is amazing.”

Hale seconds this. “There is a sense of fun, mystery and accomplishment in getting code to do what you want it to do,” he said. “It is a tremendous confidence builder for a young student and a great platform for academic success.”

However, students currently just aren’t learning these skills, something Rozell, Hale and Nguyen hope to change.

“You can start with the most basic of coding principles when kids are in kindergarten,” Nguyen explained. “In Arkansas they have mandatory hours of coding the kids have to fulfill.”

But one of the major obstacles to implementing coding programs in schools is finding qualified instructors. “Tech jobs are so in demand, yet finding someone who wants to teach is tough,” Nguyen said.

It is a vicious circle because there aren’t enough teachers, yet without teaching students coding skills, Oklahoma will never be able to produce enough teachers. That, in addition to dramatic budget cuts, have made every coding initiative DOA in public schools.

But whatever the obstacles, computer experts say that coding technology needs to be taught in schools. Learning how to type and use word documents are no longer fulfilling the technological requirements of an increasingly tech-dependent world.

“It is important to teach the kids the careers of the future,” Nguyen said.

And Rozell agrees. “In our days, every business has or wants to create a website and a presence on social media. The demand is huge; someone will need to meet those needs.”

While it is important for all students to learn to code, Rozell’s organization “Learn to Code” focuses on empowering girls and women in particular. According to the diversity reports of almost every major tech company (Apple, Google, Facebook, twitter, etc.), women make up less than a quarter of their technology workforce. Nguyen, who also makes presentations to the girls in the organization and others, agrees that this gender inequality starts in the classroom. She always asks groups of girls that she speaks to if they are ever the only girl in the room for computer science, tech, and development clubs and every girl raises her hand. Every time.

While Learn to Code currently is only offered in Tulsa, Rozzell hopes to offer more programming to smaller towns, including her home of Sand Springs. She is also relentlessly searching for sponsors to make the class available to kids regardless of their parents’ ability to pay, saying, “We all have seen how technology is replacing manual labor. Self-checkouts, eCommerse, self-ordering at restaurants, etc. And it will only continue to expand. The demand for coders — those people who make this kind of computer expansion possible, has increased tremendously, while there’s a great shortage of skilled personnel to fill in those open positions. Therefore, the smart thing to do is to make sure that the kids will be ready for the job market demands, and obtain the marketable skills.”

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Categories: Education: Elementary