Successful Coding for Kids program helps lead the way
By Michael Howell
After partnering with the local non-profit organization Coding for Kids for a few years now as a summer program, Stevensville School District Superintendent Dr. Bob Moore is excited about the prospect of integrating the program into the new Trades & Technology Center planned as part of the recently approved school levies.
The Coding for Kids program began in the summer of 2017 as a community supported effort to provide instruction for kids in computer coding and robotic design and construction. According to Coding for Kids board member Loey Knapp, the response from parents and students was so enthusiastic that class offerings were expanded and after school classes were added during the school year. Five coding classes were taught in the summer of 2018, and eight classes are being offered this summer. Classes now include beginning programming, robotics, digital art, Arduino, biomimicry, drones, and website construction. To date, 140 students have attended the classes already offered, some taking more than one class. Another 100 are expected to attend the eight upcoming summer classes.
“A student taking the full range of these classes will be well-grounded in computer science constructs and more fully prepared for high school and college STEM/STEAM subjects,” said Knapp.
According to Knapp, technology is becoming more and more a part of our everyday lives, and grounding in the fundamentals of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is increasingly critical for students. According to iD Tech, STEM jobs are projected to grow by 13% between 2017 and 2027 compared to a 9% increase in non-STEM jobs and yet most U.S. students are not prepared to fill these job opportunities as education in STEM fields is lacking. One estimate suggests that U.S. universities are expected to produce 29% of the graduates required to fill the upcoming STEM positions. Knapp believes that educating the youth of the Bitterroot Valley in STEM subjects is key to the future growth and stability of the valley.
Superintendent Moore concurred with that assessment. Moore said that the school district was strongly committed to its FFA program and agriculture will be a big part of the planned Trade & Technology Center. So will the industrial arts. But they are also committed to expanding into more technical fields and are excited about integrating the STEM classes into the Trades & Technology Center as well.
Moore said that the district was interested in students being able to find meaningful and stimulating employment in their own community after graduation or in preparing them for more advanced STEM education in college.
He pointed to Glacier Tool & Die as the kind of company that could employ students with such skills in its highly computerized manufacturing operation.
According to Knapp, after a long slump, the tech industry is booming again. She said data reveals there were 627,000 unfilled positions in tech in April of 2017. Software, cybersecurity, and cloud computing professionals, in particular, are in high demand. As a result, techies are making more money than most professionals. In 2016, tech workers received an average annual salary of $108,900 compared to the national average of $53,040.
Greg Trangmoe, Coding for Kids board president and also chair of the Stevensville school board, said, “There is a perception that if you learn coding you are headed off to California to work in the tech industry, but that’s not the case.” The reality, he said, is that plumbers need to be computer savvy. Even the cashiers at Walmart are on computers using sophisticated software and require someone to keep them up and running, he said. Moore noted that something as basic as automotive repair now requires some sophistication with computers. He said he was interested in including auto repair in the Trades & Technology Center.
All in all, Moore said, “having a non-profit operating 100 yards from the school that is able to support using technology as a learning device adds to our curriculum. The partnership makes sense.”
Knapp said that the support shown by the whole community was a big aspect of their success so far as well as the critical grants and donations received from such entities as the Heman Foundation, Women’s Foundation of Montana, Greater Ravalli Foundation, Missoula Federal Credit Union, Bitterroot Gives and Arduino.
It’s thanks to a $3,000 grant from the Women’s Foundation of Montana, for instance, that a special class was added to this year’s list of summer classes called Robotics Just for Girls. Both Trangmoe and Knapp agreed that gender bias is extremely prominent in the tech industry and many companies unwittingly foster a culture that doesn’t encourage women to pursue a career in tech.
According to data compiled by virtual event solutions company, Evia, women make up less than 20% of U.S. tech jobs, even though they make up more than half of the U.S. workforce. Not only that, but women now hold a lower share of computer science jobs than they did in the 1980s.
So if the tech industry is booming nationally, why are women in tech lagging behind?
Knapp thinks that there are several factors at play in preventing women from pursuing a tech career. She said experts believe lack of female mentors and gender inequality are some of the factors responsible for the trend.
Besides the Robotics Just for Girls class scheduled the week of July 8th through 12th, there is Code-a-Game camp running concurrently; followed by other week-long camps including Create Your Own Robo Hero; Robot Challenge; Unleash your smART Powers; Biomimicry: Design Like a Shark; and Maker Space with Arduino.
Knapp said that the median income in the Bitterroot Valley is far lower than the national average, limiting parents’ ability to fund their children’s outside interests. As a result, the financial approach to the Coding for Kids program has been to make classes affordable for all students interested in attending. Tuition charges are very low, she said, $125 for a week-long summer camp (including lunch). She said comparable classes in other areas of the country are $900 to $1,000.
For more information about Coding for Kids email [email protected] or call Loey at (406) 529-9175.