Parents are playing a more hands-on role in California’s ongoing quest to grow the number of students who pursue technology professions — and tech-savvy workers in all kinds of fields.
At schools around the state, parents are learning how to code alongside their young children as a way to increase interest in computer science as a potential career path. Called Family Code Night, these events are designed to help address the need to expand the pipeline in order to meet the demand of one of the state’s fastest growing job sectors.
“I didn’t have this when I was in school, and it’s so cool to see him do it,” said Manuel Majinmontijo, an electrician who sat next to his 3rd-grade son Markus during a recent Family Code Night at Bagby Elementary School, part of the Cambrian School District in San Jose.
With more than 68,000 open computing jobs across the state, according to an estimate by the national computer science education nonprofit Code.org, state education officials have made increasing access to computer science education and careers a priority. Gov. Gavin Newsom also is proposing to allocate $15 million in next year’s state budget for school districts to prepare nearly 10,000 K-12 teachers to teach computer science.
There’s still a long way to go: Only 3 percent of California’s 1.9 million high school students were enrolled in a computer science course in the 2016-17 school year, according to according to a 2019 report from the Kapor Center, a nonprofit that focuses on equity in technology.
Starting young is key.
At the recent Bagby Elementary School family coding event, nearly 90 parents and students packed the school’s multi-purpose room to work through an hour-long coding project on Code.org. Families picked one of three coding activities where users drag and drop lines of code, represented by colorful blocks, to design and control characters on their screens.
“Code is basically Lego pieces that you stack together to build something,” said Ian Willis, a 4th-grade student who said he wants to someday create video games.
Across the country jobs in computer and information science are projected to increase by 16 percent from 2018 to 2028, nearly three times faster than the average growth rate for all occupations, according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In 2018, the State Board of Education passed California’s first-ever set of computer science standards. The standards, which are optional, offer schools guidance on how to bring computer science into the curriculum from kindergarten through high school.
Computer Science for California, or CSforCA, is a coalition that promotes access to computer science education with members including the California Department of Education, school districts, nonprofits, tech companies and advocacy groups. It has pushed to get the standards into more classrooms by supporting efforts such as a week-long Summer of CS event in Sacramento, where teachers of other subjects get an introduction to teaching computer science.
But access to these opportunities still reflects the inequity within the technology sector at large: Black, Latino and female students are among the least likely to be enrolled in computer science classes in California, according to a 2019 report from the Kapor Center, a nonprofit that focuses on equity in technology.
“Our goal is to inspire a belief that computer science is within range for anyone, and to do so well in advance of this sadly inevitable middle school experience when students decide coding isn’t for them,” said John Pearce, director and CEO of MV GATE, a Marin-based education nonprofit that developed the Family Code Night program.
Family Code Night was featured at the White House in 2016 as part of former President Barack Obama’s Computer Science for All initiative, which included $120 million from the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that supports science research and education, to research and pilot ways to increase the number of students participating in computer science education around the country. That year, MV GATE made a free step-by-step guide to hosting a Family Code Night, including an organizer’s checklist, invitations, handouts, a script for presenters and resources in Spanish.
More than 400,000 teachers across the country have downloaded the event kit, Pearce said.
A 2015 Gallup study found that 91 percent of parents want their child to learn computer science. But parents without coding experience may still feel jittery about the subject, Pearce said.
No prior coding experience is required to participate in or host a Family Code Night. Some attendees at Bagby Elementary’s event, like Lee McCutcheon, a veteran who now works for the California Department of Veteran Affairs, have never typed a line of code before but he brought his 4th-grader Mizuki to give her a chance to try it out.
Others are steeped in the technology field already. “I didn’t get exposed to coding until I was in college,” said Kim Tsuchida, a former software programmer. “I was a woman in this field, and we need more diversity in tech.”
Having parents at all levels of familiarity with computer science sit side by side is part of the learning experience, said Ariana Flewelling, a staff development specialist at Riverside Unified who coordinates Family Code Nights in her district.
“It helps the family who may not know about computer science learn about educational opportunities and how to advocate for their children,” Flewelling said. “And maybe it’s eye opening for parents who do have that privilege to see, oh, coding is for everyone.”
Cambrian and other districts have also modified the event kit to meet their own needs. Riverside Unified offers three different versions of a Family Code Night: one using the Family Code Night kit, a more challenging version that adds in robotics and a computer-less version that focuses on “computational thinking,” which refers to problem-solving in ways that a computer can understand, such as designing algorithms.
Family Code Nights are free and the event kit advises schools to provide devices and free Wi-Fi. Using grant funds, Riverside Unified also provides $300 to its schools that host Family Code Nights, which can be used for expenses including printing costs, on-site child care, food for attendees, or to pay teachers who stay beyond their contract day.
The extra services have helped boost participation in the Riverside district, particularly among girls and black, Latino or low-income students, Flewelling said. “They can go to this event and get a free meal.”
Seeing increased parent interest at the events also led the district to offer more computer science classes for students during the school day, she added.
Cambrian hosted its first Family Code Night in 2018 and last year branched out to six schools across the district, which were organized through a volunteer parent organization called the Cambrian Educational Foundation.
“Events like this are about expanding opportunity,” said Frederic Caldwell, who attended the event at Bagby with his wife and two sons. “Not everyone has a computer at home. This is a big deal. It sets kids up to have the confidence they need to go down that path.”