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North Dakotans invited to “hour of coding”

Stock image of computer programming

It pays to know your tech.

That's what the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction said in a recent press release, noting that North Dakota has more than 600 open computing jobs with an average salary of $70,311—a salary 50 percent higher than the state's average salary. Computer science is more valuable than ever, and that's why North Dakotans are invited to take part in an "hour of code" during Computer Science Education Week, which began Monday and will continue through Dec. 10.

"What area of our lives isn't affected by technology and computers?" Kirsten Baesler, state superintendent of public instruction, said in an interview. "If your passion is in health insurance or the travel industry or banking or in energy—every one of our daily aberrations of life is affected by computers and coding. The basic fundamental difference we need to explain to the general public is that computer science isn't typing or word processing or using the technology—it's about making the technology, writing the technology."

Those interested in participating in the Hour of Code can go online to https://csedweek.org/learn, where coding activities are grouped by grade.

"It starts with, 'What problems do you want to solve?' Isn't that what technology is for? To solve our problems, to improve living conditions in the world," Baesler said. "It's no different from mathematics or science. What problem exists? How might we go exploring (solutions)?"

Learning computer science, coding and similar skills is no long just a matter of memorization, she said. She said education in America has for the better part of a century hinged on memorization—now, the paradigm is shifting.

"We've taught the model of memorizing things and we realize that's not going to serve our students well," Baesler said. "The world isn't rewarding students for what they know, it's rewarding them for what they can do."

She said there exists a need to "fundamentally" change the approach to education, and this involves teaching children from a young age the essential skills to coding—recognizing patterns, being inquiry-based and encouraging curiosity.

The curriculum doesn't even get into coding languages until middle school, when an elementary school student will already have the foundational concepts to work with most challenges they'll encounter, Baesler said.

"It's amazing to me to see these kids. It's not about math and science anymore, it's not about coding, it's about something real to them," Baesler said. "The excitement and the engagement that I see happen in their faces ... when they start solving a problem with technology."

Coding exercises during the Hour of Code challenge are meant to provide hands-on instruction on the basics of computer science, said Baesler, who added that that when she learned coding in the 1980s, there were barely any computing languages. Now, in addition to scripts like Java, there are many more languages that can be used to code, and they change frequently, making rote memorization even less useful, she said.

"As soon as you (finish teaching) a student that language, it will (have changed), so it isn't (about) teaching a specific language," she said.

Computer science skills are being prioritized beyond just the education world. The release noted that Senate Bill 2185, approved by the 2017 Legislature, allows high school students to substitute an approved course in computer science for one of the three math credits they need to graduate. The Legislature also made it possible for every North Dakota student to take at least one Advanced Placement exam at no cost during high school. Students who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals may take as many as four exams at no charge.

Baesler on Monday attended a kickoff event for Computer Science Education Week in California, where she met Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer for Facebook; Susan Wojcicki, YouTube's chief executive officer; and Peggy Johnson, executive vice president of Microsoft Corp.

"I'm just trying to stay ahead of the game and it's become very apparent to me that this is necessary," Baesler said. "Our business and industry ... has that same understanding. There are some great opportunities for those of us in government and those of us in education ... to create a coalition to embrace the idea that for this to happen ... it can't be just one single entity's responsibility."

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