Utah kids savvy on Facebook and Angry Birds, but their computer coding skills don't fly
Task force explores requiring high school students to have more advanced knowledge.
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On a summer Friday, Zane Williams and a group of friends hit a glitch as they tried to make a computer sing — it wouldn't play flats.

Once the teens realized their program could only read sharps, they tweaked the sheet music it was scanning. Their speaker blipped out a short melody at a computer coding summer camp at the University of Utah.

"I've never done anything like this in school," said Williams, a rising sophomore at Brighton High School. "Programming's becoming a bigger part in jobs and careers. Even if you're not a programmer, you probably need to know a little bit."

Utah expects far less of its high school graduates — asking them only to show they have the office skills to create a document, build spreadsheets and organize files.

But the state Board of Education realizes it's time for an upgrade.

This summer, a task force is debating how fluent Utah students should be in computer science to graduate. Their report is expected this fall.

Today's jobs demand a higher level of computer literacy, critical educators, executives and parents contend, urging Utah schools to boost students' exposure to coding and programming.

"Just because a student can surf on the Web — and play on Facebook and play video games — does not mean they're computer literate," said Cody Henrichsen, a computer science teacher at Canyons School District.

And such literacy is "not so elective in today's economy," said Helen Hu, a Westminster College professor of computer science serving on the task force.

One possibility is sprinkling more computer science into core classes, such as math, said Sydnee Dickson, director of teaching and learning for the state Office of Education.

With rapid changes in technology, it's challenging for schools to write curriculum and train teachers fast enough.

Teaching coding also requires wider Internet access than most Utah schools now have, and more student access to school servers than most districts now grant, said Carl Lyman, a technology education specialist at the state education office.

Utah lawmakers' $10 million push for science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM education, doesn't immediately include any computer science initiatives, said Jeffrey Nelson, chairman of the Utah STEM center and CEO of Nelson Labs.

But a background in basic coding and robotics is a "big need" in today's medical jobs, he said. "We're hungry for people with these skills."

Start young • Eight-year-old Jake Dawley dragged green ovals and orange circles across a PC screen at the U.'s summer computer and robotics camp. Guided by his programming, a Lego robot spun in circles and could sense when it was coming up against a wall.

"It's cool," Dawley said, "because it's interesting that your robot will listen to something you do on the computer."

Advocates say students should learn the ABCs of computer science early — with puzzles, logic and team problem solving — because children familiar with technology are more likely to pursue such careers later.

Schools can also break down what experts say are widespread misconceptions: that the discipline is only for nerds, or even just men.

Waiting until high school can be too late, said Microsoft engineers David Jackman and Larry Fluckiger, who teach Advanced Placement and elective classes in the Alpine School District.

Among high school students, "we get this stigma that it's really hard," Jackman said. The feeling is, "that's not really my thing. It's going to be too hard to do."

Part of their sell: pointing out the lofty salaries computer engineers can make.

Few computer science graduates opt for a lower-paying teaching career, Jackman and Fluckiger realize, so they're also training Alpine teachers to take over the classes in the future.

For Jake, programming for Lego robots is part of his routine at home — "that is, if I have time," he said, between Boy Scouts or baseball.

It's a "travesty" that schools don't provide such lessons in grade school, said his father, Lyle Dawley, a deputy commander at Hill Airforce Base. "It's going to take a new era of teachers."

Jessica Johnson, whose 11-year-old daughter attends the U.'s camp each summer, said she finds it "kind of alarming" that programming isn't taught at her daughter's school. "It's becoming an enormous part of the way the world works," she said.

She looked into starting a Lego robotics team. But at hundreds of dollars for the robots and software, she said, the price tag gave her pause.

Teaching the teachers • Gobstoppers, Now 'N Laters and Jolly Ranchers were scattered across desks in a Westminster College classroom in June. Teachers in groups sorted the candies by brand, desirability and other traits.

The lesson: Which sorting methods took care of all the input? Which resulted in hiccups or leftovers, which might lead to a computer error?

The exercise is part of a free curriculum for a new high school computer science course developed at University of California, Los Angeles.

For the first time last year, Utah students at two schools could take this alternative to the traditional office skills class, which students try to test out of in droves.

Gail Chapman, a professor at UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, trains teachers around the country. This summer's workshops at Westminster were funded by a $790,000, three-year National Science Foundation grant.

The curriculum aims to draw students into computer science by sparking creativity, she said.

"What are the things you might imagine a computer doing some day?" she said. "Just making students aware of the possibilities is a huge big deal."

But the course also includes rigorous lessons, she said, including navigating a network and coding toward the end of the school year.

Utah schools also are developing a Coding 101 elective for 9th graders, Lyman said. About one in three schools in the Salt Lake Valley currently offer similar courses.

Kim Mendenhall, who teaches computer science at Fort Herriman Middle School, is among the teachers offering the new course in 20 schools this fall. Her students are constantly flicking their fingers over smart phones and tablets.

"But do they really understand how to use a computer in a job or college? I don't think so," she said. "There should be requirements at every single level for kids to build on." —

Which states want student coders?

States are focused on teaching students how to use computers rather than explaining concepts of computer science that lead to innovation and further study, according to the Association for Computing Machinery and the Computer Science Teachers Association.

As of 2010, 14 states had adopted standards that included significant computer science instruction, the groups said in their report, "Running On Empty: The Failure to Teach K-12 Computer Science in the Digital Age."

Nine states counted computer science toward high school math or science graduation requirements, including Oregon, Texas and New York.

The report ranked Utah among the lowest states for teaching concepts recommended by the National Academy of Science and its partners.

Nationally, computer programmers make about $78,000 a year, a 2012 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows. In Utah, that salary is about $73,000. —

Pitching programming

Think of it this way, experts say: using computer programs or apps on devices is an elementary skill, like making small talk. Understanding the logic that goes into computer programming is like learning to read. Students also need to learn to write — or how to tell computers what to do through programming.

"We teach our kids to read, but not everybody's going to write a book," said Lynn Langit, a California programmer who runs the nonprofit Teaching Kids Programming and leads workshops in Utah. Schools should "teach our kids to program," she said, "even though not everybody's going to be a programmer."