Noel Tautges loves playing video games so much that he imagines a career designing them.
“I’m obsessed with playing video games, but sometimes when I feel motivated I like to code outside of school,” says Tautges, an eighth-grader at Eagle School, a private school in Fitchburg for gifted children.
For years the teaching of programming concepts and languages has been a part of Eagle’s curriculum. Jack Maloney, a computer teacher there, says once students have become proficient with the keyboard, they start writing code.
These would appear to be welcome developments given the projected shortfall in the number of computer science graduates the country produces. From 2012 to 2022 there will be approximately 1 million more U.S. tech jobs than computer science graduates to fill them, according to a report from the nonprofit Code.org. The cost in lost salaries will approach $500 billion.
Eagle isn’t the only school teaching coding. Code.org offers a free introduction to coding called Hour of Code (HOC). Steffenie Williams, a computer and technology teacher at St. James Catholic School in Madison, says the entire school (except the 4-year-olds) tried HOC in December.
“I was shocked,” Williams says. “There’s a few kindergarteners who have just clicked with this program, and that’s all they want to do. I’m like, ‘we’re going to play another game,’ and they’re like, ‘no, we want to code.’”
Madison’s Marquette Elementary has had students participate in HOC twice. School librarian Maegan Heindel says that she started an after-school club at Marquette called Genius Hour that’s focused on “coding projects and game creation.”
Marquette is unlikely to make coding a bigger part of its curriculum in the near future, says Heindel, because state and district standards make it challenging. “The focus is on literacy and math,” she says. “Things are pretty tightly scheduled.” Private schools like St. James and Eagle do not face these same constraints.
But state government does seem to value coding instruction. In 2013 Gov. Scott Walker signed Act 63, allowing computer science coursework to count toward math credit for high school graduation.
Kids who want to learn how to code but whose schools lack resources can sign up for extracurricular events to learn from local experts.
Fractal, an enrichment program for kids housed within Sector67, sponsored a winter camp. Campers ages 6 to 12 picked what to work on from a list of choices, including building a computer game with Scratch, a youth-oriented language for creating puzzles, animations and interactive stories.
Kacie Conroy runs KIDS GET IT!, a series of workshops introducing children 11 to 14 to information technology careers. The organization sponsored a web camp on Dec. 6 in which kids worked in teams to define ideas for new products and create mockups. Ideas included transportation devices like a hyperloop and a solar-powered hoverboard, as well as a “cyber mom” to help out around the house. Teams worked with developers from local companies like Epic Systems and Adorable IO to write the code for actual websites based on their mockups.
Conroy, who works as a senior business analyst at Middleton’s Yahara Software, says mentorship opportunities abound in Madison because of an abundance of tech professionals.
“There’s a lot of local support for educating kids about IT because I think a lot of people see that Madison is becoming a mini IT hub,” she says. “Employers understand that they’re fostering potential future employees.”