Kevin: Computer science and IT jobs are expected to grow 13% by the year 2030, but less than half of U.S. schools teach computer science as part of the core curriculum. How can we get more kids interested in computer science at an early age? And what can we do to ensure that a tech education is accessible to all students regardless of sex, race, or where they live? And what should our schools be doing to ensure that students are prepared for the jobs of tomorrow? This is "What I Want to Know."
Kevin: And today, I'm joined by code.org's Jackie Smalls to find out. Jackie Smalls is the chief programs officer at code.org. There she manages curriculum and professional learning programs for more than 57 million students and 100,000 teachers around the world. Before that, Jackie worked at Black Girls CODE, where she helped introduce computer science to thousands of girls of color across the country.
Jackie's also held positions as a public school teacher and an ed-tech executive. Today, she is with us to explore the benefits of computer science programs in K through 12 schools. Jackie Smalls, thank you so much for joining us on "What I Want to Know." And I'm really excited to have you on. The work you're doing is phenomenal. We talk about girls can code too, black girls can code too, is so incredible. I wanna talk about that, but first, your background, because I'm always intrigued by the paths that lead one to their chosen work. And you went to South Carolina State. My father went there. It's a great school. ROTC, U.S. Army and an environmentalist, how did that end up leading you to become a code expert?
Jackie: Well, I wouldn't call myself a code expert. I would say that we are trying to make sure that students have access to coding so that they can choose to be coders if that's what they'd like to do. But I will say it still falls in the area of STEM and it was something that I was always interested in. So even as a little girl, I was always curious, asking lots of questions so much that I used to get in trouble, I think, at school asking so many questions and so talkative. And I just said last week that I guess they didn't know that I was preparing to be able to speak to many when I was so talkative in elementary school, that I'd have the platform to talk about code.org and why it's so important for students to have access to computer science. But for me again, I was around STEM in college at South Carolina State. I always liked biology, environmental science, so at South Carolina State, that's what I actually majored in. And I had the opportunity after graduating from college to be an environmental scientist in the United States Army.
Kevin: Then you continued and followed up on your interest with STEM generally. And at some point in time, you realized that there was a huge need that needed to be filled in depressed communities and communities where there are underserved citizens. So what kinds of things did you do leading up to code.org that filled that STEM need in more afflicted communities?
Jackie: And I was actually going to South Carolina State to get a teaching certification. I wanted to be a physical education teacher. So not only did I like science, I liked sports so why not be a teacher that could teach sports all day long, right? Dr. Sally, she was the biology chair. She said to me, "Don't you wanna think about doing something in the scientific field? You're so engaged in class. And I really think you'd probably be interested in doing that." And then ROTC said, "You know what? We can give you a little bit more money if you actually change your major to the science field." So it was really Dr. Sally, she was the first African-American teacher that I had in science. And that was freshmen in college. So I had to wait 13 years to see that in front of me.
Kevin: Isn't it amazing though, one teacher can make a difference.
Jackie: One teacher. Absolutely.
Kevin: One teacher can change your trajectory when they remind you of some talent or some potential expertise you don't know you have based on the interest and their interest in you.
Jackie: So Dr. Sally was always in the back of my mind. So even when I was an environmental scientist and there was very few of us in the Army, imagine being a black female in the Army as an officer was even smaller. I think there was only five of us at the time when I was in the Army. And so, in the back of my mind, I kept thinking Dr. Sally, she was the chair of the biology department, if she could do it, I can do it, right, because I saw me in her. And so that was always in the back of my mind. And then as I got older, and then I got out of the Army and I started teaching myself, I said, "You know what? Little black girls need to see that this is possible for them as well." And it really became my life's work.
I'm part of a sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated. I've always been interested in public service, but I always found myself doing things that was related to STEM and activities with students. And I just saw how interested they were if done the right way. So not to be discouraged, but actually, be encouraged. And they would have fun with it, just tinkering. I mean, kids like to tinker, like to figure things out naturally, if you don't make it hard for them. And so for me, I just saw it as an opportunity to engage students, but also knew a STEM field could change your trajectory and what you'd wanna do in terms of college and beyond that.
Kevin: Now, before code.org, you had a particular focus with black girls coding. And tell me how you actualized that dream by helping black girls become more involved in coding?
Jackie: Absolutely. I would say before I joined Black Girls Code as the vice president of programs, I was with Discovery Education. So that allowed me to travel across the United States, seeing various different school districts. And every time I walked into a school district that didn't have many students of color, I saw how students looked in and kind of leaned into me. And I said, "You know what? This has gotta be my responsibility. I can't take it lightly." Students see me and they see a possibility. And so, I wanna make sure that I have that opportunity or give that opportunity to young women. And so when I had a chance to join Black Girls Code, it was a dream.
Kevin: It's pretty powerful. So, you know, the black girl coding sort of issue gained prominence in part due to "Hidden Figures" and Katherine Johnson and that movie where it depicted the black women behind the scenes who help provide some of the programming support for the early NASA space program. And obviously, your work contributed to that. Why did you move to the next thing with code.org? I mean, it sounds like you really found your passion while you were working with Black Girls Code.
Jackie: The reason that I went to code.org is because I had an educational background. I wanted to make sure that we made what we do every day. And that our mission is to ensure that all students have access to computer science through K-12 education. We think computer science is just as important as math, just as important as language arts, because, you know, the world is running off of technology. And students shouldn't hold up their cell phones and think there's magic. They should know that no, there's a reason of how this works and you can learn that.
And so we just wanna give students the opportunity at the schoolhouse, how could they learn to use computer science to either change their lives? And if they don't want to go into computer science, if they don't want to be a software engineer, that's okay. But computer science opens your eyes to many things. It builds creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, all of those skills that you want students to have. Shouldn't they have access to computer science? And we're happy to announce, we just released a report last week, that 51% of high schools now offer computer science.
Kevin: What does code.org do? And you mentioned the relationship with school districts. I know you want to have computer science program as part of the core curriculum, but walk us through what code.org does and how they operate in effectuating that goal of getting computer science as a core programming curriculum subject.
Jackie: Well, we have a fantastic model, and that is we couldn't scale the way that we've scaled unless we had our regional partner network. So we have school centers, universities, STEM centers that are actually in the local regions. For example, here in the D.C. area, we have Maryland Codes as a partner. Maryland Codes as a partner recruits teachers into the professional learning program that code.org supports and we write the curriculum for that professional learning experience for teachers so they can go right back to school and they can teach their students how to code in computer science and engage.
So we wanted to take the stigmatism away of you had to be a computer scientist or a computer science teacher to teach computer science. That's not the case. We have teachers, K through five teachers, kindergarten teachers, teaching students, kindergartners how to code. And so that's how we actually are able to scale and get to 51% of schools across the United States offering computer science, because we have regional partners. We have about 59 at this time scattered throughout the United States that work with the local school districts to recruit teachers.
Kevin: I presume and I must say, that sometimes you face headwinds because sometimes school districts are used to what they do and how they do it and change doesn't come easy. How do you negotiate that?
Jackie: Well, I think the pandemic really opened everyone's eyes to say one, yes, students can use technology because that's, for some, that was the only way school was provided virtually, right? So now we can say, look, this is what we want students to have access to because what would we do without it? We were using it. For us we've been using it for almost two years now in terms of how students are learning. And if we want students to be able to be successful after say 12th grade and whether they choose a career or they go to college, computer science should be a fundamental skill for everyone.
Kevin: So you have noticed more receptivity from school districts as a result of the pandemic?
Jackie: Absolutely. They do see it as an opportunity, also see it as an equity issue because the school districts that...you know, the high, affluent school districts typically have computer science. That's where we see the gaps, especially among black students, young women, Hispanic students, and Native American students. The gap exists there because they typically don't have access.
Kevin: And all those underserved communities, demographics less than 50% have access, and it sounds like there is progress being made. What more can be done to ensure better inclusion?
Jackie: The one thing I think we can do a better job in is to engage the black community or the, you know, the communities of color because Black Girls Code did a great job engaging community. They knew that the students or the girls wanted that community or access to be around other girls to learn how to code. I think we need to build more of an awareness around the possibilities of computer science, so parents of students of color will then advocate for their students to actually have computer science.
Kevin: Yeah. One of the things you said, and you alluded to it during this conversation, but in previous interviews, you've talked about the importance of inclusion and curriculum building that showcases for students the fact that there are people who look like them doing it. You mentioned it earlier. And even when you build a curriculum, the curriculum has to reflect that.
Kevin: So talk about that in terms of engaging these underserved students.
Jackie: Well, we are creating a new course and it's called Computer Science A. It's an advanced programming course. And what we found in the current curriculum is it doesn't allow for students to see themselves. So we're purposely developing a curriculum that students would be able to see themselves in the curriculum so it's culturally responsive to what they wanna learn, it's relevant to what they wanna learn. And that's at the high school level.
But at the elementary school level, we are starting to look at how could we create content that's integrated with all the other content areas because we know it's hard to ask a kindergarten teacher to integrate computer science into their classroom. They've got to teach math, they've got to teach ELA. But how can we create a curriculum that supports math, that supports science and ELA? Some of our videos have people of color actually talking about computer science and what they're able to create and do and where they found success. So as our students are engaging with our curriculum, they can see themselves in the curriculum.
Kevin: Is college necessary? I have looked at the computer science programming world, if you will, and there are some of these STEM boot camps that will guarantee if you have a high school degree, you apply and you can get your scales, your certifications, so you may not necessarily need a computer science programming degree from a four-year institution. How do you see that playing out in the future?
Jackie: Yes, there's many programs that offer alternative certification programs. And I've also seen many people do that during COVID because they had more time on their hands. So they might have a full-time job but they said, "You know what? This is something that I want to do differently." I was able to go through those boot camps that...and be hired starting at $80,000, $90,000 a year and you don't have to go through a 4-year college, absolutely that's another opportunity. And I see it becoming more and more prevalent than the traditional, I'll go through, you know, a four-year program.
Kevin: So, the goal is to get more and more school districts, every school district to accept the idea that computer science curriculum should be a part of the core curriculum. What are the biggest obstacles to having that happen?
Jackie: Well, I think the biggest obstacle is time because you still need a teacher to be able to teach. And I was a teacher myself, always trying to find time. Every teacher will tell you the biggest thing that I have is not enough time with the students. So I think it's one, the urgency of administrators seeing that computer science is important and then investing in it and not something that's just there for a flash, but something that becomes sticky and becomes part of the district and becomes part of the regular everyday curriculum. That's the challenge, where do we find the time to make sure that this is happening, especially at the elementary school level.
Middle school, high school, it can happen because they actually have it as a course. But when it comes to K-5, you have to find the time that's outside of, say, ELA, math, and social studies and science. And that's where we're saying, we need to look at how can we integrate it into those subject areas to make it that much easier. So at the K-5 level, it's finding the time. And I would say at the middle school, high school level, it's am I gonna offer computer science, am I gonna offer something else? So it's the willingness to want to offer that as well.
Kevin: So, Jackie, this is what I really want to know. How can we convince school districts to make the necessary investments, to ensure that all students have access to computer science curriculums?
Jackie: I don't think any school district would turn their back if they see the level of engagement that students have within computer science. Where they see that if you want good math scores, perhaps you should have computer science because we are seeing studies where one supports the other. And so if you have computer science, what pathways, what possibilities are you bringing to your students? So if I was speaking to a superintendent, I would ask, "Why wouldn't you have computer science?" not “Why do you have computer science...? But why wouldn't you? Why would you not wanna give the opportunity to your students to become content creators in a very effective and creative and engaging way that you're gonna see engagement in your other courses as well?" And I would think they would say, "Huh, well, show me. Let's see...you know, let's go into a classroom and let's see the power of what computer science can do," and I don't think they could say no.
Kevin: Yeah. Well, Jackie Smalls, you're doing amazing work. Keep on pushing. You're pushing in the right direction. Thanks for all that you're doing for our children and for our schools, to help enlighten them about the value and promise associated with computer science curriculums and programs. Jackie, thank you so much.
Jackie: Thank you.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #wiwtk on social media. That's #wiwtk on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Jackie Smalls is the Chief Programs Officer at Code.org. In her role, she manages curriculum and professional learning programs for more than 57 million students and 100,000 teachers around the world. She previously worked at Black Girls Code where she helped introduce computer science to thousands of girls of color across the country. Jackie has also held positions as a public school teacher and an ed tech executive.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.