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Decoding a future in the tech sector

As part of her Digital Media course at Garibaldi secondary, Natasha Nakonechny is constructing her own video game. - Colleen Flanagan/The News
As part of her Digital Media course at Garibaldi secondary, Natasha Nakonechny is constructing her own video game.
— image credit: Colleen Flanagan/The News

“Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people who were no smarter than you, and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

– Steve Jobs.

The tech sector is warning of a looming crisis of computer literacy in North America, with pundits saying the education system must give tech education a more prominent place in the curriculum.

There is a projection that by 2020 there will be a million more computer science jobs than students in America. As soon as 2016, Canada will be short 100,000 tech workers.

Incentives are there – computer science is among the highest paid college degrees, and jobs in computer programming are growing at twice the average.

Yet, even though our work, communication, entertainment and our lives are increasingly linked to the digital realm, less than 2.4 per cent of college students graduate with a degree in computer science – and that is fewer than 10 years ago.

Code.org is a new, non-profit website that aims to promote computer literacy. In December, it held the Hour of Code event, and students at Garibaldi secondary in Maple Ridge joined more than 23 million people who learned an hour of code on the site.

Apple, Google, Yahoo, Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Disney and others partnered in the effort. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft’s Bill Gates personally got behind the project.

Code.org founder Hadi Partovi said computer science will be important for nurses, journalists, accountants lawyers and other fields.

“We want to pull back the veil on this black magic dark art of code that separates you from Mark Zuckerberg,” he said.

A local recruiter for a tech-savvy generation, Todd Goodman teaches animation and digital media at Garibaldi.

He gives his students an introduction to computer language that they can take on to careers. If they don’t work in a tech field, they will at least be able to solve problems, and have a sense of confidence in understanding the digital world around us. They will be not merely consuming digital products others have produced, but be able to “decode” and appreciate them.

Goodman is among the growing chorus who espouse that computer literacy is part of a well-rounded education. Just as all students study Shakespeare, dissect a frog in biology class, or learn what H20 means in chemistry, so should they get some foundational knowledge of code.

He’s in good company.

Promoting the Hour of Code, U.S. President Barack Obama encouraged young people to learn computer programming skills, even if they have no intention of working in the field.

“Learning these skills isn’t just important for your future, it’s important for America’s future.”

“Don’t just buy a new video game – make one. Don’t just download the latest app – help design it. Don’t just play on your phone – program it.”

Programing a smart phone might sound optimistic, but it’s not. Goodman has a student in his class who creates custom icons for iPhones, and sells them. That’s some tough coding, said Goodman, because Apple generally creates products that are hard to reprogram.

“There’s so much talk in the province about pushing the trades, but I wish they would talk more about coding,” said Goodman.

“App design is just exploding,” he said. “Coding jobs are here to stay, and these are jobs that pay $60,000 to start.”

The tech-savvy students are not necessarily here to stay. Over two or three decades, California’s Silicon Valley has siphoned many of Canada’s best and brightest. The brain drain sees 350,000 Canadians living in the Bay Area.

Natasha Nakonechny is a Grade 9 student who has been inspired by Goodman’s animation class. An assignment is to have students design their own video games. He teachers them to use the Blender 3D modeling software and the Unity game design engine.

She has created a two-dimensional “retro-style” video game. She’s a talented artist, and uses the popular Japanese anime for her game. It has inspired her, and Natasha knows she can take a place in the video game industry someday.

Natasha has thrown herself into the project, working away on her laptop on her own time, and that is not unusual for Goodman’s students.

“It’s a lot of independent learning,” he said. “They work at it on their own time, and we get phenomenal work.”

If playing video games was fun for Natasha, designing her own is consuming.

“I found out you could design games pretty easily, and now it’s a mini obsession,” she said.

“Coding, obviously, is going to be important to me.”

She’s a top computer sciences student, already a fantastic designer, but her experience is typical. Goodman’s class produced 25 games, and he said “some of them are fantastic. I was blown away.”

He said BCIT, SFU and The Art Institute all have good programs for computer science, and his students have a good foundation and a portfolio piece to show them.

Computer science is not the domain of just honor roll students. Anyone can learn it, Goodman asserts. It takes time, and some honest academic rigour. In terms of difficulty, he compares it with learning a new language.

Goodman adored his Commodore 64 back in 1988. When the car in his racing game was too slow, he went into the game program, found the line of code he needed, and doubled his car’s speed.

“It’s a lot simpler than people know, and it’s mathematical, and it makes sense,” he said.

The key, in his opinion, is to get students hooked at a younger age.

“You could teach a math unit in code, and get students interested when they are in elementary school,” he said.

He suggest students could create their own calculator on a computer, and then sent the app to their phone.

“It’s very do-able, and the long-term benefits are huge.”

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