‘Hour of Code’ to focus on Boston public schools

Students play computer games to learn computer science.
Students play computer games to learn computer science.

Elsa of Arendelle, from Disney’s “Frozen” movie, runs straight 100 pixels, turns right 90 degrees, and then repeats steps one and two three more times. The outcome? The princess ice skates in the shape of a square.

These are the very basics of computer science in block-based coding form that students are starting to learn at age 6.

Code.org, a nonprofit founded in 2013 to expand access to computer science and increase participation from women and minorities, works with computer developers to create software that uses the interface and characters from games and movies such as “Minecraft,” “Star Wars,” “Frozen,” and “Angry Birds” to teach computer science.

The Minecraft game is a new addition to "Hour of Code."
The Minecraft game is a new addition to "Hour of Code."
During Computer Science Education Week, which runs from Dec. 7 to Dec. 13, more than 184,000 schools and programs worldwide will host Code.org’s “Hour of Code,” an initiative to show K-12 students that computer science can be fun. Massachusetts will host more than 1,000 “Hour of Code” events.

The Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council is helping connect the computer science and information systems industries with schools during the week to raise awareness on the impact and importance of learning code. MassTLC is concentrating on the  Boston public schools this year, hoping to engage all 57,000 BPS students, said Tom Hopcroft, MassTLC’s president and chief executive. All Somerville public schools students, the district MassTLC focused on in 2014, will participate in coding activities this week, Hopcroft said.

Massachusetts is home to hundreds of technology companies,  but there is a gap between the industry and schools, Hopcroft said.

“We need people, plain and simple,” he said.

Right now there are 17 open positions for every computer science and information systems college graduate in Massachusetts, industry leaders said, or 21,000 in total. And the average salary for a computing occupation in Massachusetts is $100,663, almost 43 percent more than the average $57,610 salary in the state, according to Code.org.

Hopcroft said there are several reasons for the dearth of graduates with computer science knowledge. There aren’t enough computer science teachers across all education levels. Computer science still doesn’t count as a core math or science graduation requirement in 25 states, including Massachusetts; only 1,784 state students took the AP computer science exam in 2015, according to the College Board.

While Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University ranked first and third respectively in US News and World Report’s 2016 list of the “Best Global Universities for Computer Science,” many of these students do not stay in Massachusetts after graduation, said Aimee Sprung, civic engagement manager at Microsoft Corp.

Undergraduates majoring in computer science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has increased from 550 students in 2012 to more than 850 students in 2015, James Allan, chair of the faculty at the College of Information and Computer Sciences, said in an e-mail.

“While we can’t attribute this trend solely to programs like ‘Hour of Code,’ a stronger focus on K-12 computer science education and awareness has certainly generated interest and excitement about the field,” Allan said.

Since 2014’s Computer Science Education Week, industry experts said schools are adopting computer science programs faster than expected and more afterschool programs and summer camps are being organized. Seven school districts in Massachusetts have a full-district partnership with Code.org, and an additional eight districts have identified one school as a Code.org partner, which provides the schools with curriculum and teacher professional development.

Shereen Tyrrell, the executive director of the MassTLC education foundation, said almost 300 computer science professionals, including Microsoft and Pegasystems Inc. employees, will volunteer in local schools during the week.  Volunteers will help teach computer science and speak about the field, trying to encourage students, especially girls and minorities, to commence learning computer science.

One hour of block coding through a computer game is not going to turn a student into an expert. But the goal is to ignite an interest in problem solving skills that are needed for any career, Hopcroft said.

“Computer science is a 21st century skill [that] levels the playing field,” Hopcroft said. “Communities that give their kids the opportunity to develop these skills will be creating the future.”

This story was updated at 12:40 p.m. to correct the number of students who took the AP computer science exam in Massachusetts.