New Orleans schools cultivate homegrown techies by Danielle Dreilinger

New Orleans schools cultivate homegrown techies by Danielle Dreilinger

Liam Smith, 16, bent over a small circuit board and an array of lights, frowning. The lights his teacher had programmed, on display as an example, shone and rippled. His barely flickered. Not good. “I just want mine super-bright. Like blindingly bright,” said Smith, a student at New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School.

With those circuit boards, a three-dimensional printer and pickle jars bristling with wires, the classroom looked like a cross between The Home Depot and Steve Jobs’ garage. “Steve Wozniak’s garage,” teacher Andrew Winstead corrected, naming Apple’s less famous co-founder.

Students were learning how to program Arduinos, which Winstead compared to the miniature computer that runs a programmable thermostat. First, they had to properly wire the circuit board and light bulbs. Then they had to tell the computer how to turn the lights off and on.

“It works!” Smith said. “It’s a very touchy thing with the wiring.” He moved over to the computer. “I have to rewrite the whole program, but that won’t take long.”

It all took place in Sci High’s Makerspace Lab, a new kind of shop class that’s part of a push to program new computer programmers and train New Orleans teenagers for high-paying jobs.

“Kids should be taking computer science. They really should,” Smith said.

Digital education could make Americans more competitive, close achievement gap

The need for computing speed

That’s a growing refrain in New Orleans and around the U.S. Business leaders say it’s crucial to get more students interested in and prepared for tech jobs — for the sake of the economy and their own job prospects.

In 2014-15, computer science was the fastest-growing Advanced Placement course in the country in the 2014-15 school year, said Maria Eugenia Alcón-Heraux, spokeswoman for the College Board, the nonprofit that offers AP classes. Numbers were paltry in Louisiana, though. Only 164 students took the computer science AP exam, and they came from just 16 public and private schools. It could have been worse: in Mississippi, only five students took the computer science AP exam.

Of the Louisiana test-takers, 28 were African American — up from six the year before — and 35 were female. In nine states, no African-American students took the test at all.

The race and gender imbalance in technology is a particular concern in New Orleans. Reports from Google and Gallup found black, Hispanic and low-income students were less likely to have a computer at home, have adults in their lives who worked with technology, or go to schools that offered computer science. Furthermore, “students and parents perceive that there are few portrayals of women, Hispanic or Black computer scientists on TV or in movies,” the Google/Gallup report says. “They also often see computer scientists portrayed wearing glasses.”

“This is something that has been inaccessible to kids, and kids of color have not been given opportunities to compete,” said Matt Candler of 4.0 Schools, who promotes education-technology startups. “We can do so much more of this.”

In the year just past, several New Orleans schools and tech groups heeded the call.

Upon seeing student interest and “a huge jump” in state math test scores, Algiers Technology Academy expanded its basic coding class into a four-year computer track, Principal Nia Mitchell said. The program includes coding and applied technology such as audio engineering and web design. About 40 students signed up for the more coding-intensive option, Mitchell said. The academy also housed the pilot program Rooted School, which plans to offer technology mentorships and apprenticeships.

Then there are initiatives from the tech side. Operation Spark offered its “Fundamentals of Software Development” course through the Louisiana Department of Education’s Course Choice program — meaning students could take it for free as part of their ordinary school day. Operation Spark also adapted the course for schools to teach on their own, founder John Fraboni said. Shorter workshops were offered as well, such as an introduction to video game programming.

Sci High’s Advanced Placement course, accounted for about one-third of Louisiana’s African-American test-takers. But the school didn’t offer it again this past year, because students directly into college-level computer science was a steep climb, Winstead said. Instead, Sci High offered two introductory classes: the Makerspace lab and a coding seminar.

The school isn’t alone in looking for prerequisites. New Orleans’ Ben Franklin High School offered AP computer science and a “gently paced” introductory programming course last year, according to its catalog. The College Board is launching a computer science principles course this fall “to increase student diversity,” Alcón-Heraux said.

With software improvements and lowered costs, more and more New Orleans public schools are looking at making computers not just a testing tool but a central part of year-round education.

Coding at school

Candler said computer science’s immediate job prospects were highly motivating. “A kid can learn to code in six months and be making 35 bucks an hour at nights and on the weekends,” he said. Furthermore, cool projects such as robotics and wearable technology can excite students to get more deeply engaged in math and science, he said.

The excitement was obvious at Sci High. Senior Breshawn Russell knew very little about computers at the start of the year. “I was like, teenagers can do this?” she said. She took the school’s coding class and had learned to make games and apps with the Scratch program, developed by MIT to teach people to code.

Russell’s latest project lets a user doodle on a photograph, then erase the image and start again. “It’s like really fun,” she said, clicking a button labeled “You Go!” and drawing bunny ears on a selfie.

Critics say Scratch is too easy because students have the option of dragging and dropping components instead of typing commands and learning a programming language. But Russell said her app’s simplicity hid a lot of effort. She switched her tablet to the behind-the-scenes view, which was loaded with boxes representing units of code. “You see, all this to do one little app,” she said.

Russell, who is African American, said some people have stereotypes about who’s into computers. “There’s stuff you feel women can’t do, especially a black woman,” she said. But knowing how to code, “I’ll be able to get a job in a technology field and compete with those quote-unquote white guys.”

Downstairs in the Makerspace Lab, junior Santana Polanco felt similarly. People tend to underestimate her, she said, particularly because she comes from a Hispanic immigrant family. Working on tech projects “gives me confidence because I get to prove everyone wrong and have fun at the same time,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Ha ha to you!'”

She also found technology to be creative. Just as she likes to write and play music, creating tech tools “helps me express myself,” she said.

Take, for example, the lamp she was finishing. First, Polanco designed a pattern based on computer circuitry. Then she created it on the lab’s 3-D printer, extruding a plastic cube. Finally, she placed the cube over lights she soldered together and programmed on her Arduino. The result could have been sold in a science museum gift shop.

“You can do so many amazing things with this,” Sci High junior Shemar Boutte, 17, said, delicately placing wires.

Boutte doesn’t love school. He said he had a hard time in most classes. But Makerspace was different. “When you see it light it up, it’s like — see what you just did,” he said, his own face lighting up. His grades even improved in pre-calculus.

“I feel like if you’re not going to get good at technology, you’re not going to survive in this world,” Boutte said. Besides, he said, “nerdy people … make the most money.”

Going forward in the fall

When the school year starts in August, tech options at New Orleans schools will grow still further.

Fraboni said Operation Spark had run into some frustrations. School leaders enthusiastically supported computer science in principle, but “there’s a lot of disorganization,” and “they’re also really busy doing what they’re (already) doing,” he said. Nonetheless, he had hired a director of high school programs, partnered with the popular Idea Village “Trust Your Crazy Ideas” entrepreneurship competition and expected to work with three or four high schools in the fall.

At Sci High, the gradual approach paid off. Not only is the school reinstituting the Advanced Placement course in the fall, co-principal Claire Jecklin said, but they’re also creating a four-year computer science track. Participants will earn a tech industry certification along with their high school diploma.

Winstead had switched jobs, joining the education lab IDYIA full-time. He’ll be spreading the gospel, he said, taking a technology truck to schools, training teachers and writing a curriculum for schools to run a Makerspace lab like the one at Sci High.

“It’s tough, and I have to fight for every inch. But I really believe in the power of these programs,” he said. “Otherwise, America is going to fall further behind in technology — further behind than it already is.”


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