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Gates, Zuckerberg join effort to promote computer science

SAN JOSE, Calif. – A plan to build a diverse supply of skilled programmers by ensuring that computer-science classes are available in every elementary and secondary school in the United States got a boost Monday when Silicon Valley and tech industry luminaries announced that they would back the effort with money and know-how.

Tech superstars such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Susan Wojcicki of Google, Jack Dorsey of Square, Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn, investors John Doerr and Ron Conway; and powerhouse companies, including Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Amazon, and Salesforce.com, have all signed on with Code.org, a nonprofit group that began last year as the dream of Iranian immigrants and tech investors Hadi and Ali Partovi.

“It’s been amazing, collecting this group we’ve assembled,” Hadi Partovi, a Seattle-based angel investor, said at a San Francisco news conference to launch the effort to expose more kids to a rapidly growing field that is fast becoming one of the most important in the U.S. economy. “This is incredible support from the tech industry.”

Code.org would not say how much money it had raised from its benefactors.

Partovi issued a challenge for every school student to spend an hour coding during a week in December. He said he would donate enough laptops for an entire classroom to 50 participating schools. Another 50 classrooms will win a video conference call with a tech luminary, such as Gates, Dorsey or Wojcicki.

The hour of coding challenge, which Partovi hopes will result in 10 million students being exposed to programming, is something of a gimmick for the much larger goal. Code.org’s plan, with the help of the deep pockets and big brains it has recruited, is to train at least one teacher in every school to be a computer-science instructor.

The idea is to give every student the opportunity to decide whether computer science is for him or her in the hopes of staving off a severe shortage of programmers, a worry of the tech industry for years. Hoffman said computer science education would prove valuable even for students who go into other careers.

“For one,” Hoffman said, “it actually teaches problem solving and critical thinking, which is useful anywhere in terms of what you’re doing in your life.”

Moreover, social scientists and others have for decades pointed out the lack of diversity of those studying computer science and working in the field. While women make up a majority of those attending college and have nearly reached parity in the fields of medicine, law, math and some sciences, they account for only about 18 percent of those who received computer science degrees in 2010, according to figures from the National Science Foundation.

The numbers for blacks and Latinos are even worse. The Computer Research Association reported that in 2011, blacks earned 3.6 percent of computer science degrees. The association reported that the number for Hispanics was 5.4 percent.

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Those who have studied the issue say one factor in low participation among women and some minorities is a lack of exposure to the field early in their academic careers. Computer science becomes a closed club, the argument goes, of white and Asian boys who took to computing early through the encouragement of teachers, parents and media stories of the successes of young men in the field. By the time women, blacks and Latinos are exposed to the subject some time in college, it is often too late to embrace computer science as a major.

Though no exact figures are available, Code.org estimates that only 10 percent of the nation’s high schools offer computer-science classes. Smith said during the panel discussion that fewer than 3,000 of the country’s 42,000 high schools are certified to offer advance placement computer science.

UCLA senior researcher Jane Margolis, who co-wrote “Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing” and who’s studied the gender gap in computer science since the 1990s, says Code.org’s push into schools is needed to diversify the ranks of computer scientists. Today high school computer science is largely limited to kids whose families can afford private instruction or who live in marquee school districts that offer advance placement computer science classes.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that it’s not just the kids of preparatory privilege,” said Margolis, who’s working with the Los Angeles Unified School District on an effort to expand and diversify computer-science education there. “We want to make sure that all these other kids are learning this really important knowledge.”

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©2013 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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