Fri December 6, 2013
Shortage Of Programmers? Time For Code Red
The St. Louis startup wants to provide schools with a curriculum, training and support to help teachers show students how to write computer code so they can land a good job even if they don't go to college.
To get an idea of why training students to write computer code should be a higher priority for schools, consider these numbers:
About 50,000 U.S. computer science jobs remain vacant each year because there aren’t enough trained workers to fill them. By the year 2020, nearly 760,000 new jobs in computing and information technology will be created, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But last year, only 173 Missouri high school students took the AP exam in computer science, compared with more than 3,900 in English and 3,100 in history.
That kind of imbalance prompted Michael Palmer to become what he calls the founder and chief instigator of Code Red Education, which is designed to provide an accessible curriculum and training for teachers in kindergarten through high school to help students learn the skills they can use whether they want to go straight into IT jobs or go on to college.
In many ways, Palmer said in an interview in his sparse office in the T-REx incubator complex in the Railway Exchange Building downtown, computer programmers are today’s version of the auto assembly line workers of a generation or two ago. With a basic skill, whether it’s the ability to screw a bumper on a car or tell a computer what to do, a good-paying job will be waiting for them when they leave school.
But learning the basics of computer programming can also help in other fields, as Palmer knows all too well.
Listing the various areas where he has college degrees – history, philosophy, English – he says he has firsthand experience with living with the frustration of having a big college debt and a small salary.
With a liberal arts background, though, Palmer says, computer coders have an advantage of being able to see problems through a broader lens.
“In the liberal arts,” he said, “you are taught to think outside the box a lot more. People who are strictly engineers or coders are more narrow.”
Code Red, which got a big boost with a $50,000 cash infusion from the Arch Grants program, is already profitable, Palmer said. Its system is being used at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic School in Collinsville and at an after-school program in Ladue.
A lot of websites say they can teach students how to code, but Palmer wants to convince other area schools that the company’s combination of a simple curriculum for students, training for teachers and customer support is a winning formula.
Jeff Gray, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Alabama, says Palmer’s approach is a good way to spread a badly needed skill through elementary and high schools.
“A lot of times,” he said, “we’re taking traditional science and math teachers who know nothing about computing and we’re asking them to teach in a whole brand new area. It would be kind of like taking a history teacher and asking them to teach calculus.
“You need professional development that is very broad and expansive in order to bring teachers up to speed in this whole new area.”
Knowing computer science is one thing, Gray said. Knowing how to teach it is quite another.
“That second part,” he added, “is a little bit harder.”
Moving angry birds
Making sure that teachers can get across a computer science lesson is a big part of the challenge in preparing the next generation of coders. But helping them to see why IT is a smart job choice is easier, Gray says.
He notes that it’s an entry-level job where newcomers can make a big splash fairly quickly, and age is not a handicap. Not long ago, he says, a 17-year-old sold an app to Yahoo for $30 million.
“A lot of folks in this industry who are in their 20s are becoming world changers because they can mix the creativity with the technology skills,” he said.
A national industry group, code.org, makes a strong case for every student in every school to have the chance to learn computer science. It backs up its claim with testimonials from everyone from Bill Gates to Bill Clinton to Jack Dorsey to Sheryl Sandberg to Snoop Dogg.
Its website also has a video that shows how easy it is to use off-the-shelf codes to make an angry bird move forward or make a right turn, just by clicking blocks of computer commands together.
“I can go to a middle school,” Gray said, “and in a half hour we can build some really interesting apps.”
That kind of hook, he added, is a big factor in making computer programming not only accessible but also interesting to students who may have never seen before why they were studying math at all. Gray says that the right technique, what he calls “raising the excitement level,” is a key, noting that “the traditional way of teaching linear algebra can put you to sleep.”
And getting students to think like a programmer, being logical and precise, can be engaging as well. Even the simplest tasks, when translated into computer language, can have very wrong results if they aren’t phrased exactly right. Students soon learn to think in algorithms and in a computational way.
“We ask students to tell us how to tie your shoe,” he said, “or we ask them to tell us how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Students will always be very cavalier about it, and we do exactly what they tell us, which ends up in a way that ends up with peanut butter and jelly all over the floor.”
Done right, teaching computer programming can bring in groups that traditionally have been underrepresented in IT jobs, like African Americans and women. Showing a math class in inner-city Birmingham how they can create a video game really gets a lesson across, Gray said.
“We said, ‘Hey, if you want to know how to do this, you better learn this math…,’” he recalled. “Students were asking, ‘What do we need to know this for?’ We were actually providing a direct context for them to know, and that fueled their wanting to know more about math.”
And even for students who may not have IT as their first choice of a career, learning how to think like a programmer can’t hurt. For English majors or someone majoring in life sciences who doesn’t get into medical school, coding can provide real benefits.
“We had people who were writing software for pacemakers,” Gray said. “They had to have dual knowledge. They had to understand the biology of it and the software side of it….
“If you don’t know how to work in a technical digital world now, you’re really at a disadvantage. Whatever your career choice is, it’s really useful to know how to manipulate that space for your own career needs.”
Mazes in Ladue
The third graders who entered the computer lab at Reed School after classes one afternoon last week aren’t thinking about a career yet, of course. They simply came ready to have fun by creating mazes, then using the arrow keys to guide different characters through them.
Emma Fischer played with changing the size and the color of her jellyfish. Molly Midkiff raced her figure around a curvy track. And Bobby Keller tried different configurations to make sure his sprite could work its way through his maze without hitting the black line that would send it back to the starting gate.
“I like designing the background,” Molly said, “and it was fun choosing the character.”
Allison Collinger, a parent at Reed who also helps judge applications for money from Arch Grants, said the Code Red approach works well with students who take its basic building blocks and quickly learn how to make them their own.
Plus, she said, “it’s nice to support a home-grown company.”
Watching the students use his program, Palmer was obviously pleased to see his concepts in action.
“We thought fourth graders would have an easier time with it,” he said, “and with third graders we would have to hold their hands.
“But the third graders are the most determined kids I’ve seen in a long, long time.”
That determination came through when the students experienced one of the hardest computer truths of all – servers can crash, making you lose all of your work.
“There’s a lesson you need to learn,” Palmer said. “You have to back up things as often as you can.”
Chris Schreiner, principal at Reed, was pleasantly surprised at how quickly the students not only absorbed the program but also used it in ways that showed their creativity.
“I’m always amazed at how fast kids pick this up,” he said. “They soak it up like a sponge.”
The computer lab’s bulletin board is designed to teach other online-related lessons as well, like don’t send pictures of yourself over the computer, never agree to meet in person someone you’ve met on the Internet and “ just because it’s on the Internet does not mean that it’s always the truth.”
In general, Schreiner said, Code Red’s curriculum plus a general understanding of how the online world works fits right in with what the school’s overall goal is.
“We’re trying to prepare kids for jobs that have not even been created yet,” he said. “This is right up our alley.”
And would Bobby Keller like to be able to have a job where he could design mazes all day and get paid for it?
“When I get older,” he said, “I’ll be able to do more advanced stuff because I’ll already have gone to college.”
Wrestling with a job choice
Finding the right career wasn’t so easy for Michael Palmer.
In addition to two tries at becoming a pro wrestler -- “My mother is going to kill me because I’m telling you this. That’s her secret shame.” – he also bounced from major to major to major, earning a number of college degrees along the way but nothing that could help him earn a decent living.
He became a teacher, working in Cahokia, East St. Louis and now at McCluer North High School in the Ferguson-Florissant district. There, Palmer said he technically teaches history, “but I actually teach computer science in those history classes. I found a convenient loophole.”
Now 29, he started Code Red Education in May 2012, working in odd moments during his teaching schedule, plus late at night after he comes home to play with his 2-year-old son, Asher. His routine doesn’t leave much time for sleep, but he says he can sleep when he’s dead -- or as they say in the startup world, when he exits.
“Sleep is for the weak,” Palmer said. “You don’t necessarily need it.”
Code Red’s office is far from plush – “I just had my last ceiling tile put in, so I don’t have exposed wires anymore.” Figurines such as Yoda share space on the shelves with a variety of manuals for computer languages. The space costs him $150 a month, located in a warren of rooms shared by other startups which will soon be moving to T-REx’s new space in the old Lammert building at 911 Washington Avenue.
At Code Red, Palmer calls himself an “altruistic edupreneur,” someone who wants to use a successful business to help students find their way to fulfilling, well-paying jobs.
Those unfilled computer programming positions have nice salaries, in the $65,000 range to start, and there will be plenty of them. Eventually, Palmer wants Code Red to not only teach coding skills but also help place students in their first job and support them as they move along in their career.
To do that, Palmer said, Code Red provides not just a curriculum that is easy for teachers and students to use but the training that instructors need and service after the sale. The program costs districts $5 per student plus a $500 set-up fee, he said.
Rather than simply pointing students to an online site and having them muddle through coding instruction on their own, Palmer said his company’s method gives teachers the tools they need to anticipate what their classes will need to be successful.
The teacher is not a sage on the stage, as the popular school saying goes, but a guide on the stage, he said.
His viewpoint isn’t universally shared. At some schools he is trying to get interested in the program, Palmer said he has run into resistance from what he calls “old-guard thinking,” administrators who want to concentrate only on reading and math to boost student test scores.
But, he added, that kind of attitude appears to be fading, as more schools realize the benefits of teaching their students usable coding skills that they can use in a job right after high school or can parlay into acceptance at a big-name university.
“It’s really prestigious to say 98 percent of your students go to college,” he said. “It’s even more prestigious to say we have this many students going to MIT or to Caltech and they’re on scholarship.”
And even for those liberal arts students who don’t think of IT as a career, he wants them to have options and not a big load of debt and a $30,000 salary – “which sadly I know a lot about,” he said.
Liberal arts are fine, Palmer added, “but you have to have something else in case all of those women’s studies jobs are gone.”