It’s the first coding course 17-year-old-high school student Robyn has taken, but he already knows where he belongs.
“My dream employer? Well, I’d have to say Google.”
Robyn, two peers and a professional programmer, are building a Pac Man-like zombie game called “Reclaim.” Today’s task: fixing a bug so that their protagonist no longer falls off the virtual map.
Robyn is one of the 10 students who have forsaken the sun to sit around a gloomy class room at Mission High School, more or less glued to their laptops. He is one of 68 San Francisco high school students taking free coding classes offered by Mission Bit. The nonprofit teamed up with Out of Sight in the fall, and has been a part of its after-school program.
The courses take place at Mission High and the Lick Wilmerding High School, a private school, but any student in the San Francisco Unified School District is free to join. This semester, only 20 percent of the students attend Mission High. The others come from Balboa High School, Lowell High School and various other schools in South San Francisco. Students that complete the course earn 2.5 elective credits and the necessary laptops are provided by Mission Bit.
A good 40 percent of the students are girls. More than 50 percent of this semester’s high school participants are Asian, almost a quarter are Latino and 5.4 percent are white. There is a waiting list to get in.
On the table next to Robyn’s, Gisela and her project partners are facing the daily struggles of any software engineer: their code is too complex. They are coding a website that creates Madlibs with songs of their choosing, but so far it doesn’t quite work.
One of the professional programmers finally steps in and helps out. He advises them to look up the principle of “Don’t repeat yourself” on Codecademy. Gisela, unlike 90 percent of her course mates, already has programming experience. She took a computer science class at Lowell High School, but decided to switch to the afternoon classes at Mission High. “The course here is more on a college level, and it’s geared towards future employment,” she said.
Mission Bit founder Tyson Daugherty said that even before moving to the Mission in 2008, he had been thinking of starting a nonprofit. “As I was looking into schools for my older son, it just seemed really frustrating to me that everybody defining technology today lives right across the street from here, and there are still not a lot opportunities for kids to get into computer science,” he said. He ditched his idea for a three-day long music festival in the Mission District, and opted instead to start Mission Bit.
With 30 active coding teachers and 30 more who have signed up to teach, funding is the only obstacle. A recent indiegogo campaign raised more than $35,000, but that will only last through this semester. Daugherty wants to build a small full-time staff to manage organizational tasks, arrange teaching schedules for the upcoming semester and plan field trips to major tech players in the Bay Area. He is currently looking into alternative funding methods, but so far, not much has come out of it.
Still, Mission Bit wants to expand and plans to offer 10 classes in the Mission as well as more in other parts of the city. “We could float along with two to three classes each semester, but then we wouldn’t really address the problem,” Daugherty said.
That problem, he said, is that the chances of a regular San Francisco high school student getting a proper computer science education (or any computer science education at all) are fairly low.
Professor Andrea diSessa, from UC Berkeley, agreed that there are too few teachers who integrate programming into science classes. DiSessa is an expert on science education and has been involved with teaching programming to kids since the early 1970s.
He argues that many people don’t understand the added value of programming in the curriculum, and this is especially true for San Francisco. In a city that plays a major role in the industry, only five out of 17 high schools offer computer science classes.
Nonprofits such as Mission Bit step in and try to bridge this gap. The classes are project-focused, and students learn as they code along.
“One of the problems I see is that programs like this vocationalize programming when it should be a literacy,” diSessa said, but he sees Mission Bit as evidence of the public’s new interest in coding.
He cautioned, however, that programs should be less driven by future employability and more on building a solid foundation of technical understanding.
At the end of the day, however, diSessa and Mission Bit founder Daugherty seem to be able to agree on one thing: the importance of getting kids excited about programming.
“Students should develop ownership of a medium,” diSessa said, and he agreed that project-driven learning is a way to accomplish that. Mission Bit’s outcome so far proves him right: for one, students from last year’s introduction course came back this semester to participate in the Intermediate Programming Course. One of last semester’s students created his own chat server. Another one even took part in a hackathon — and won.
In the meantime, Robyn and his peers have succeeded in fixing their game’s bug. They have been working on the game for more than a month, but there is still a lot left to do: they need to implement maps, guns and a lot more zombies before the game can go online.
As often in programming, progress is slow. But Robyn doesn’t mind. In fact, he is the only one who is also working on the game in his spare time. “I’ve always loved computers and this class is my chance to actually get into it,” he said. This summer, his brother-in-law promised to help him build his own computer from scratch.