Teens Dream of Google And Learn to Code For Free

Students work away on their projects.

Students work away on their projects.

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.

35 Comments

  1. 24-24

    Good job Mission Bit!

  2. community

    yes yes yes — we need more of this! Projects like this address the challenge of the fundamental education that makes a wide range of future careers possible for todays kids. Almost every decent job of the future will have some component involving computer and programing literacy.

  3. marcos

    Ain’t no rocket science to what we do, no college degree is required, back in the day of mainframes, we geeks and nerds taught ourselves how to program.

  4. nutrisystem

    This is no solution to Americas deep economic problems.

    The percentage of the American population needed to “code” is tiny, and likely to get even tinier with advancements in programming tools. If 1% of the population has “good jobs” coding, that’s not enough to make the society function.

    OK, so only a tiny number of coders are required – that’s bad, but even worse (for American workers) is that the Tech Majors are lobbying furiously for “immigration reform”… Translation: allow more Chinese and Indian programmers into the US. These 2 countries combined have 10x the US population, and thus 10x the programmer braniacs. So the American coders will have lots of smart and subservient competition.

    The distortions of the American economy are metastasizing… purchasing power of the lower 90% continues to diminish as an elite accumulates unimaginable wealth.

    I would seem that something’s gotta give. But fortunately for the billionaire overlords, a pervasive surveillance system is in place, so any social uprisings can be detected, analyzed and nipped in the bud.

    • John

      You have a problem with skilled, educated English-speaking Asian tech-savvy immigrants coming here legally?

      But you articulate no problem with unskilled, uneducated, Spanish-speaking migrants coming here illegally in far greater numbers??

      • nutrisystem

        Latin-American immigrants are economic refugees who infiltrate the US at great risk and hardship to themselves. They come on their OWN accord to escape poverty. I have respect for that kind of bravery and initiative.

        Tech H1B immigrants are being BROUGHT IN by the Surveillance/Advertising Corporations so they can get cheaper, more docile labor. This is simply a torpedo fired at the American workforce – business as usual for the billionaire class.

        • John

          People come to the US for the same reason – to better themselves.

          But liberals appear to regard Asians as somehow different and exclude them from the “non white bias” they otherwise liberally devote to their more favored victim races.

          Being the model minority is clearly a curse.

        • marcos

          It is a torpedo fired at people like me but the insipid effect is that it closes the door to the middle class for folks traditionally marginalized in the economy. It says that the government cares more about corporate profits and foreigners than existing Americans.

          • John

            No, the real problem is that you are overpaid, enabling businesses to get the same product for a much cheaper price.

            You cannot blame either the government nor the business for wanting the best value. It’s simply that the amount you get paid over what you are worth is being arbitraged away.

          • marcos

            John fears and hates his neighbors. When corporations use government in their rent seeking project, winning elections through fraud and corruption and then rigging the game for their profit at the expense of their constituents, then democracy has a remedy for that.

          • John

            No, my neighbors and I work together on a number of issues.

            I do not think you will get far politically in America by opposing employers and the providers of jobs, products, services and prosperity.

          • marcos

            John hates Americans and believes that special immigration carve outs should be crafted to drive down American wages.

          • John

            As a nation built by people from somewhere else, it is xenophobic not to continue to draw from talents wherever they be.

            Immigration only happens because Americans are overpaid by global standards. You know that and fear that, which is why you seek protection from workers who are better value than you are.

            Presumably you are angry about the millions of illegals who are driving down wages as well. Take that up with nutrisystem as he is the one who thinks we should take in the world’s poor as “economic refugees”.

    • marcos

      Which is why I am working on metaprogramming tools right now…

    • community

      nutrisystem — you consistently show that you completely fail to understand the tech industry. The key point is that *all* industry is becoming tech industry. The number of roles for software developers is increasing dramatically. tech is much more than the social media your are so obsessed with. tech, and software development, is becoming part of everything — from manufacturing, to new biotech, to material science, etc. Our pursuits of physics, astronomy, and neuroscience all need people skilled in programing to move science forward.

      this is a fundamental skill set that is needed everywhere, and is not, nor has ever been limited to some “elite 1%”. As people keep pointing out, tech is open to anyone. you dont need a degree, you dont need a fancy university, and you don’t need a license or anything to do well in the industry. This is a very good thing. The industry has always been, and still is, full of a wide range of folks from many backgrounds, poor, rich, minorities, etc.

      it is easy to hate. I challenge you to actually understand.

      • Mel

        Thank you for this comment. To further illustrate – here is a link to an article about the most valuable tech skills one can have in order to command a high salary: http://www.businessinsider.com/most-valuable-tech-skills-2014-1 At the top of the list is programming in R. You can learn how to program in R for free by taking any number of MOOCs from Coursera, https://www.coursera.org/course/rprog It’s not easy – but where there is a will there is a way.

      • marcos

        It remains to be seen if all industry can support the levels of payroll required to care for and feed engineers and quality assurance for a human facing app of any complexity.

        There will be data analysts/scientists, but again,will they be in every business, every workplace? Probably not.

        I’d be surprised if more than 1/4 of jobs required software engineering competency in ten years time.

        We need a plan B.

      • nutrisystem

        OK, so what percentage of the American population do you imagine needs to write code? And I’m not talking about running a piece of computerized equipment that can be taught in a week.

        Rough Answer: there are 1 million “software developers”. That’s about 0.3% of the American population… a far cry from “needed everywhere”.

        As you must know, since you are familiar with the subject, software can be reproduced without limit. So once a few well-paid people create it, millions of low-paid people can use it.

        http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Computer-and-Information-Technology/Software-developers.htm

        • nutrisystem

          …and that 1 million figure is only expected to go up to 1.2 million by 2022.

        • community

          nutisystem — it has always been the case, and always will be, that those who are *skilled* and who *create* new things will be better rewarded in life than those who simply work hard at a pre-defined task. It is true that not everyone will be a programer. The point is though that this route to personal success is open and available to anyone who is willing to study and learn and try to improve their lot in life. The resources are there, the path is open. This is a BIG CHANGE IN SOCIETY! in the past, the wealthy were dominated by those who owned capital, owned land, or were well connected to those with wealth. These are barriers your average person cannot easily surmount. But the tech industry is different — anyone who has the drive and motivation can learn and get involved.

          That is why so many people take issue with your constant barrage of hate on the tech industry. You are using the politics of the 19th century — fighting against capital and protected elites — and applying it to the wrong industry. The tech industry is a democratizing and equal opportunity path to success. It is the route by which folks can lift themselves up into the middle and upper middle class. Our nation *needs* industries like that.

          And it is worth noting that the “tech industry” is much broader than just programers. It is one of the largest employers of artists around — thing Graphic Design, User Interfaces, product design, etc — many of the folks in those disciplines have art backgrounds, and have also picked up technical skills to make a decent living. Likewise, many writers and editors are employed, and paid well, etc.

          Instead of hating, I recommend comprehension.

          • marcos

            Programming almost exclusively involves working hard at a task predetermined by others and it pays well.

          • community

            marcos – no. programing is a very creative task, full of extremely creative individuals.

          • landline

            We’ve been hearing these promises and predictions from the economic masters and their boosters from time in memoriam.

            Somehow, they never come true.

            Everyone should have access to the skills and training he desires and the opportunity to follow her dreams. Don’t expect a panglossian utopia to follow.

          • marcos

            Programming can be a creative task, the industry has some creative individuals, but the work is like any other production work, the scope of work is predetermined and engineers work towards completing that scope of work.

            Engineers have more freedom in organizing their work day and there are more and less creative solutions to every problem. But that does not change the fundamental nature of the relations of production.

            I’ve been programming since 1975 and still work in the industry. Please, save your hype for someone else.

          • John

            marcos, so coding involves “working hard” and yet seemingly allows for a coder to make dozens of posts every day to a variety of blogs and comment sites.

          • nutrisystem

            Community, I’m not hating on coders or computers or the desire to learn new skills.

            And I accept that software and physical automation CAN have huge benefits for society – if used wisely.

            But, looking at the bigger picture (bigger than the SF tech gold rush), I’m seeing some serious macroeconomic problems which can be summarized as follows:

            Despite vast increases in productivity from microelectronic technology, most of the US population has experienced reduced purchasing power and reduced security over the last 20 years. This is the EXACT OPPOSITE of how it’s supposed to work, and a giant red flag for anyone who cares about the country (or human history).

            False solutions are dangerous… The trendy notion that “if everyone learns how to code, everything will be wonderful” is bullshit. IAs the statistic above shows, there will only be enough of these jobs for 0.4% of the population. Throw in the related fields like UI graphics, game design etc. and that figure still would be only a few percent max.

            The issue facing the country is fundamental: what to do about the transition of the nation to a oligarch-run fake democracy with pervasive surveillance and a growing brain-numbed precariat.

          • marcos

            And John’s first contribution to this thread is to troll with an ad hominem attack…sure beats discussing the issues.

          • nutrisystem

            I hear a worldview from a lot of tech optimists (and maybe Community is one of them) whereby any smart guy with his laptop, Kickstarter and a 3D printer can start a business and do well.

            The difference between me and them is that I don’t see this scenario becoming a big chunk of the economy.

            Yes, it’s true that recent technologies can be “democratizing”, and that some clever individuals can bootstrap a little business. But look around you at the things you use in your life (lumber, food, cell phones, cars, utilities..). How many of these were brought to you by a small business? Not many… the game is still almost entirely a game of big capital and large corporations.

          • John

            Wrong twice, marcos.

            It wasn’t my first post on the thread and I was simply pointing out the contradiction between your claim to “work hard” and the amount of time you have to post here and elsewhere.

      • marcos

        More ad hominem snipe.

    • Styles

      You must be a blast at parties.

  5. Good for you MissionBits! As nutrisystem so carefully noted, training in computer code isn’t a panacea. However, education in areas not covered by our standard educational system is a profound step in the right direction. Education is the solution! It builds confidence, capability, and self sufficiency.

  6. nutrisystem

    This is an interesting bombshell: top NSA lawyer says (under oath) that Google, Facebook, etc. HELPED with the government spying programs.

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/19/us-tech-giants-knew-nsa-data-collection-rajesh-de

    So Zuckerberg, Page, etc. just flat-out lied when they claimed to be outraged and denied any knowledge of these NSA pipes into their systems. What a bunch of slime-molds. Let’s see them deny it under oath.

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