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Shirley Leung

More help needed to expand tech education

Microsoft software engineer Eric Jewart (right), worked on recursion functions with Cambridge Rindge and Latin school students  Daniel Roth (left) and Morgan Hites.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Microsoft software engineer Eric Jewart (right), worked on recursion functions with Cambridge Rindge and Latin school students Daniel Roth (left) and Morgan Hites.

CAMBRIDGE — Ariela Schear is a high school student who loves math and is as tech savvy as they come, texting and e-mailing all the time.

But this Rindge & Latin senior didn’t think about taking a course in computer programming — until her mother suggested it. “I honestly had no idea what computer science was all about,” said the 17-year-old, who will be going to Yale.

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Schear took an AP computer science course last fall, the first time Cambridge’s public high school has offered the class in about 15 years, thanks to a partnership in which Microsoft software engineers come every morning before work to teach programming to two dozen students.

To adults, the drumbeat of learning computer science is deafening. Technology infuses everything, and companies can’t hire enough programmers. One Cambridge outfit, HubSpot, has famously offered bonuses — most recently $10,000 — to anyone whose referral leads to the hiring of a software engineer.

College graduates who code can start out making close to six figures. If we were all 17 again, wouldn’t we all grow up to become programmers?

Schear’s story highlights the challenge of not only teaching computer science but getting kids excited about it. There aren’t enough schools offering programming, and kids don’t connect how their iPhones, Facebook, and YouTube all depend on it.

Last summer tech rivals Microsoft and Google joined forces to change all that but ran into real-world technical glitches. They formed MassCan, a coalition of businesses and nonprofits to expand computer science education in Massachusetts, and they marched onto Beacon Hill to boldly propose making computer science a mandatory requirement in public schools.

MassCan had to retreat after education leaders publicly derided the idea, saying another mandatory requirement would not only be onerous, but also outrageously expensive.

The coalition has rebooted, and working with another nonprofit, Education Development Center, they’ve found a formula that has a lot of promise. Armed with about $1.5 million from the National Science Foundation and Code.org, MassCan and its partners are training teachers to teach an introduction to computer science course in Massachusetts public schools.

By September, MassCan will have helped train 60 teachers and expects between 800 to 1,200 students to take the course this school year. That’s significant when you consider only about 800 public school students in Massachusetts took the AP computer science test last year.

If MassCan can raise more funds from the private sector, the state, and foundations, the group hopes to train enough teachers so that in five years a computer science course can be offered in the majority of public high schools here.

But given how far we have to go to produce enough computer-savvy workers, MassCan knows it can’t do it alone and hopes companies continue their own innovative initiatives. Microsoft, for example, runs a program called TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) in which computer science engineers from tech companies serve as volunteer teachers. Rindge & Latin is the first TEALS school in Massachusetts, and Microsoft plans to add a half-dozen more school systems this fall.

Eric Jewart, a 38-year-old software developer at Microsoft’s Cambridge office, spends most of his time behind a computer, but he jumped at the opportunity to be in front of a classroom. He has been teaching AP computer science at Rindge & Latin this school year, five days a week. Jewart got into computers after taking a class as a high school freshman. He more than anyone gets the importance of early intervention. “I really love working with people and seeing that ‘aha’ moment,” he said, recently after class.

It takes a virtual village to raise our digital natives, and we need all the help we can get.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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