An event at Parkrose Middle School highlights the importance of computer science education to the workforce needs of the future.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon Governor Kate Brown talks with a Parkrose Middle School student during a Tuesday Nov. 28 computer science lesson in the Google CS First Roadshow. Governor Kate Brown lent her star power to a Google event at Parkrose Middle School Tuesday, a gathering designed to get kids excited about careers in coding.

The selection of the 740-student school in Northeast Portland was not an accident.

Principal Annette Sweeney said about 80 percent of the school's students qualify for free and reduced lunch prices, meaning that they are below 185 percent of the federal poverty line. The school is also 69 percent nonwhite, according to Oregon Department of Education statistics.

"We are struggling, frankly, to diversify the workforce in the designing and coding arena," said Brown, noting the class had a mix of races and genders. "And so, if we can get kids interested in middle school, we capture them for life."

One young woman said her coding class — an elective all sixth graders are assigned in a rotation — is probably opening the eyes of her peers to this career path.

"I think most girls don't have an interest (in computer science). They really don't try to do anything else out of their comfort zone and what they know," said 12-year-old Aspen Humphries. She is considering computer science, but also wants to be an engineer. Her classmate Justin Duong, 11, said he would either like to be a doctor or work in computers.

Brown also spoke of the need to connect education and career on a continuum — not just that the education system lines up to the workforce needs of the future, but also that adults understand the need to become "life-long learners."

"Programs like these are doing exactly that," Brown said.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon Governor Kate Brown (center right) watches as Parkrose Middle School students learn to code on Tuesday, Nov. 28, as a Google instructor looks on.

Hands-on learning key to staying in school

The interactive lesson — set up with screens surrounding paired-up sixth-graders in the Northeast Portland's modern two-story library — used the coding language Scratch to make a short cartoon. Two young educators from Google outfitted with headset microphones led the kids through the coding experience.

Brown didn't give a speech to the children, preferring instead to ask them questions about their school experience and plans to graduate or attend college. Brown also asked the kids how they get help with their computer science homework — something their parents probably can't answer questions about.

"Google," came the repeat answer.

"Parents, I can see we're all being displaced," joked Brown.

To assembled press afterwards, she emphasized the role of hands-on learning to student engagement and the importance of computer science in the future workforce.

"When students love their classrooms, they stay in school," Brown said.

Asked how schools will pay for the new technology needed for coding, Brown pointed to public-private partnerships — such as with Google — and the fact that many kids have their own handheld computers in smartphones.

Rep. Barbara Smith Warner (D-Portland) was on hand and said the legislature is aware of the need for more technology funding in schools but said professional development needs to be a big part of it.

"You can't just throw computers at a problem and make things easier," Smith Warner said.

Coding predicted to be part of every job

Parkrose was the only Oregon stop planned so far in Google's nationwide CS First Roadshow. CS stands for computer science.

Computer science jobs are some of the fastest-growing in the Portland area, according to the State of Oregon Employment Department. Computer-related jobs are projected to grow significantly — about 11 to 47 percent, depending on the field — by 2024 with wages well above average.

Computer network architects, for example, make a median wage of $55.85 per hour with just a bachelor's degree.

But Google is worried about a labor shortage. Darcy Nothnagle, a Google spokeswoman, cited U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics that there will be 1 million more computer science jobs by the year 2020 than there are U.S. college graduates in computer science. Nothnagle added that only 10 percent of K-12 schools offer computer science.

"In the Oregon economy, in the national economy, coding is pretty soon going to be a part of every job," Nothnagle said.

Shawn Patrick Higgins, Parkrose Middle's award-winning new computer science teacher, has been part of a plan to coordinate coding curriculum from kindergarten to 12th grade in the district.

"When it looks like anything you want and it sounds like anything you want — when it can be like paint, you can create anything," Higgins said.

Try it yourself

Scratch is a free coding language developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Google offers its coding lessons, designed for schools and afterschool programs, for free at CS First.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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