City students get early exposure to computer careers at UMBC

In the student commons building at University of Maryland, Baltimore County Thursday, sixth grader Yadi Estrada was using a tablet to create a computer program that would design shapes.

Estrada and other students were responsible for writing the computer code, a set of digital instructions, to direct a character to create a shape in the right color on the screen.

Looking over her shoulder, UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski watched each move of her fingers.

Yadi was one of 13 students from East Baltimore's Lakewood Elementary and Middle school who worked with students from the Catonsville university's Computer Science Education student organization for an "Hour of Code."

The event, held at UMBC, coincided with Computer Science Education Week, which wrapped up Sunday, and recognized the late computing pioneer Grace Murray Hopper, who was born on Dec. 9, 1906.

The students are part of the school's first-year Technovation after-school program. Students meet twice a week to learn app development and coding skills.

Hour of Code is an initiative from Code.org, a nonprofit that promotes participation in computer science. Since its launch in 2013, the program has reached more than 300 million students around the world.

Acacia Asbell, director of the school's Technovation program, said the Hour of Code reinforces the idea that computer coding has a place in the real world.

Hrabowski, who has a national reputation as an education innovator, said he left the Hour of Code inspired. With tens of thousands of technology jobs in the state going unfilled, he said the biggest challenge he sees is that many are intimidating by coding.

Then he saw UMBC senior and club president Gaby Salib describe coding to the girls: Becoming the creator, rather than the consumer, of the devices they're using.

"When you can see an undergraduate explain to a middle school girl what coding is in a way that is so clear, you realize we can pull more people into this world," Salib said. "This is the answer."

The club spends time on outreach to make girls and minorities aware of computer science, Salib said.

She was impressed with what the students did. For the hour, the students were quiet, eyes squared on their tablets.

"It doesn't take so much instruction to let the light bulb go off, but more just trying and doing," she said.

Sixth grader Allencia Parker spent her hour learning about degrees and pixels. She said it's not easy to make the computer do as she says, but she was able to make the desired shapes.

"I like the challenge," she said.

Computer software writers are in high demand.

There will be more than 500,000 new computing jobs created between 2014 and 2024, according to employment projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Computing occupations make up two-thirds of new science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs created in that time.

According to the National Association of College and Employers, graduates with computer science degrees earn the second highest starting salaries, after engineering.

Marie desJardins, a computer science professor and associate dean of UMBC's College of Engineering and Information Technology, said early middle school is typically when girls start to lose interest in STEM fields.

She believes the demographic of students who take computer science classes in college is skewed toward boys because many girls and minorities aren't exposed to computer science, computational thinking and programming early in school.

"If we can reach them at this age and get them really excited and empowered … we hope that will keep their interest going and get more of them in college," she said.

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