Hundreds of students got a taste of computer coding at the Clinton Presidential Center on Saturday (Aug. 15), days before thousands more students begin taking high school classes on the same subject.
Even Gov. Asa Hutchinson and his famous granddaughter Ella Beth, the app builder of his political commercial fame, were on hand to witness the activity.
Using laptops donated by the AT&T Foundation, students at the “Head of the Class Bash” performed elementary coding techniques at the website Code.org using its “Hour of Code” offering. Students could move around the characters “Elsa” and “Anna” from the movie “Frozen” as well as move a character from the game “Angry Birds.”
The Arkansas Legislature this year passed a requirement that all Arkansas high schools teach a computer coding class, a cornerstone of Gov. Hutchinson’s campaign. At this point, more than 1,300 students are taking the course online through the state’s Virtual Arkansas offering. The course also will be offered on-site at 62 schools. Hutchinson spent a few minutes at a laptop himself. Afterward, he said a student named Michael was having trouble telling him how to work the program but then performed well when Hutchinson asked him to demonstrate it.
“It’s about touch,” he said. “It’s about feel. It’s about familiarity with coding that the new generation’s so terrific at.” He later added. “Our education system really needs to catch up with the incoming students and the next generation of coders.”
Walter Burgess, chairman of the board of the Arkansas STEM Coalition and one of about 25 volunteers, said the students’ brief time on the laptops introduced them to the skill.
“It’s meant to be a teaser topic,” he said. “They’re not going to learn how to code databases or anything in the first hour, but what they are going to do is get that spark of creativity that’s going to help them develop an interest in the STEM field.”
STEM stands for “science, technology, engineering and math” and has become a buzzword among today’s education providers.
Burgess is vice president of sales of Power Technology Incorporated, a laser production company with about 50 employees. He said the company has had trouble finding a coder for its microprocessing-driven lasers. The company uses a engineer who has that skill but would like to hire a dedicated programmer that would pay $60,000 to $80,000 annually.
Among the volunteers helping the students was Ella Beth Wengel, Hutchinson’s granddaughter who was featured in his 2014 campaign commercials. Her father, Dave Wengel, founded iDatafy, which builds databases that help prevent fraud. Wengel said his daughter said she wanted to build a phone app for her grandfather’s campaign for governor. When no one at his company knew how to do it, she found a website and learned it herself. The app included a biography, a link to pictures that linked back to the campaign website, and a link to the events schedule.
“It was something that three years ago, five years ago, you would have had to pay a professional $5,000 to do, and she was able to build an app with functionality in a day,” he said. “And then that got her really excited about doing other things, and it got the governor excited about, why aren’t more kids doing this?”