Local schools prepare for a future built on code

BUILDING SOMETHING: Rising seventh-grader Oliver Morris uses basic tools to illuminate a small light on his breadboard during a programming class at the Asheville Museum of Science in August. Photo by David Floyd

Once you learn the basics of coding, you’re free to build whatever you want, says rising seventh-grader Samuel Feinberg — even a 20-foot robot.

“But you probably wouldn’t do that because it’s too expensive,” he explains.

Feinberg is part of a generation of students who have had access to coding classes from an early age — an advantage over students who graduated from high school as recently as five years ago.

“Learning all this stuff gives you a lot of creativity,” says Feinberg’s classmate Oliver Morris. The technological concepts serve as the building blocks for automating actions that most people take for granted — like using a remote to turn on the TV or flipping a motion-activated light switch.

Morris and Feinberg participated in an August camp at the Asheville Museum of Science on the fundamentals of programming. Rising sixth- and seventh-graders at Montford North Star Academy learned to build a complete circuit and illuminate a small bulb using a “breadboard,” a simple device used to experiment with basic programming.

Funded in part by a grant local school systems received from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, the camp points to a broader trend to expand programming education across the state.

Thanks to a second round of grant funding announced in early August, area students will have access to a series of coding programs and courses at the high school and middle school levels. Local employers and economic development boosters say tech skills are vital to securing good jobs now and in the future.

Jeffrey Kaplan, director of the startup incubator Venture Asheville, compares coding to learning a new language — a skill that fits naturally into today’s tech-saturated environment.

“I’m a millennial, so I’m a digital native,” Kaplan says. “I always grew up with some kind of tech or something in the house, so I was always comfortable picking up something new and figuring out how it works. But kids today are even doing it faster and more naturally, so they know at such an early age, even toddlers, what devices are and what they do.”

Nothing for granted

In a single year, Asheville City Schools saw total enrollment almost double for the two coding classes it offers at the middle school level, from a combined 106 students in the 2017-18 school year to 182 in 2018-19, according to a report the system submitted to the state.

“The kids are fighting to get into these classes right now,” says Taylor Baldwin, the director of career and technical education at Asheville City Schools.

Asheville is one of four local school systems that have benefited from the most recent round of tech education grant funding from the state — Henderson County Public Schools received $40,000 this year and the Asheville City, Buncombe County and Madison County school systems received a combined $80,000.

The trio of Asheville, Buncombe and Madison received a $40,000 grant last year, almost a third of which ($12,000) paid for teacher training for the new middle school coding classes offered during the last school year.

Thanks to the new funding, the middle school classes offered through Asheville City Schools will lead to more advanced courses in high school. Baldwin says the system also hopes to offer a cybersecurity course if it receives a third year of grant funding.

The classes offered at the middle school level, Baldwin says, act as basic primers on the fundamentals of coding. The classes go on to explore more sophisticated concepts once students reach high school. “When they get to the high school, they get a little taste of everything,” Baldwin says.

Buncombe County Schools will also be offering a new high school IT course beginning this year — Computer Science Essentials — and the system hopes to add three more courses at the high school level in the near future. Coding, says Will Thrasher, the career development coordinator at Buncombe County Schools, is a part of students’ everyday lives. “Just some of the things that they do on their phones … they’re doing a little coding without even knowing it.”

Meanwhile, the $40,000 received by Henderson County schools this year will help boost the system’s Community of Code program, a partnership involving the school system, local businesses and Blue Ridge Community College that aims to increase opportunities for students interested in jobs in software and web development.

A new coding class — Creative Coding Through Games and Apps — is already full for the fall semester, says Wendy Frye, the director of high schools for Henderson County Public Schools. “As you might imagine, that class filled up very quickly,” she says. The course, targeted for freshmen and sophomores, will position students to enroll in game design classes offered through Blue Ridge Community College, which the school system hopes to offer on its high school campuses.

Changing times

Mike Proffitt, the president and chief operating officer of AvL Technologies in Asheville, remembers a time when a “computer lab” was a huge office occupied by a single IBM computer. Inputting information meant sliding punch cards into a slot in the massive machine. “That computer now is not as powerful as your laptop or even your cellphone,” Proffitt says.

Proffitt learned how to program software in the early ’80s after he got a job as an engineer. “Software and computer-driven devices weren’t used as much until the ’80s,” he says. “But now everything takes software: your cellphone, your car — probably your lawn mower.”

AvL Technologies, which owner Jim Oliver started in 1994, began through an incubator program at A-B Tech. The company had a workforce of six people back then but has since grown to 208 employees. Today, it manufactures satellite communications equipment for commercial, civil and military customers.

And with growth has come an increased demand for qualified employees — most of whom come from four-year universities like Georgia Tech and Western Carolina University, Proffitt says.

Regional needs

Across North Carolina, 18,000 open jobs in computer science offer an average salary of $87,000, according to a report completed by several state organizations and education groups. Preparing students to access those well-compensated positions is a primary goal of the state’s technology education funding initiative.

The grants awarded by the Department of Public Instruction have allowed almost 1,800 students and 125 teachers across North Carolina to take a coding or app development course, says Drew Elliot, communications director for NCDPI.

“Providing North Carolina students with access to tools and knowledge in the fastest-growing career field in the nation will translate into more jobs and a growing economy for our state,” he says.

Even though enthusiasm is strong among local school systems, regional growth in certain computer-driven fields has been slower over the past several years than state growth, according to data provided by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce.

Between 2015 and 2018, the total number of jobs in 12 statewide computer-oriented fields, including web development, computer programming and database administration, has increased 12 percent across North Carolina. The number of jobs in these fields has increased only 6.4 percent in the 24-county Western North Carolina region.

Although some job categories employ proportionately more workers in WNC than in other parts of the state — user support specialists, for example — the region does lag in several significant sectors. WNC has a lower proportion of app and systems software developers, as well as a lower percentage of computer systems analysts, who hold 20 percent of the tech jobs statewide but 12 percent of the regional tech jobs.

Job market demands

Local school systems meet with local tech companies to keep tabs on the employers’ needs. Most of the companies originated as networking, cybersecurity or programming startups about five years ago, Baldwin says.

“There was a huge push of them coming to Asheville,” Baldwin recalls, but “they could not fill the jobs here because nobody was coming out with programming degrees and security degrees.”

Even though local growth in tech jobs might be slower than elsewhere in North Carolina, local educators see strong demand for qualified graduates. Business owners have told school officials they look for new hires with a solid base of knowledge along with a willingness to meet employer expectations.

“[Businesses] want them to have the problem-solving skills, they want them to understand the language of the computer science, and then they want them to follow their protocols and their company,” Buncombe County Schools’ Thrasher says.

Drake Thomas, a security instructor in the computer technologies department at A-B Tech, says his students have found work or internships at Pardee Hospital, Mission Health and Epsilon, a tech company based in Weaverville. Fundamentally, he says, employers look for two traits.

“I think every company is eager to hire employees who can be nice and fix things,” Thomas says. “That’s kind of my trademark statement.”

Local educators have also seen increased demand for people who can work efficiently from a remote location — a skill that is uniquely valuable in an industry where the only tool many employees need is a computer. “These employers are looking for people who can work from home, log on in the morning, do what they need to get done in the day, log off in the afternoon,” Baldwin says, “and when they’ve got to get their projects done, they’re done.”

Building something

If enthusiasm is a predictor for success, many of the kids in the programming class at AMOS are on track for promising careers. Hands shoot up, responses to questions come quickly, and one student even jumps up and starts dancing when he manages to get his light bulb to glow.

Even though they’re still several years away from college, Feinberg and Morris have both thought about what they want to do when they grow up. Morris leans toward acting, but he’s also inspired by the stories he’s heard about Steve Jobs and the founding of Apple.

“I really want to try that sometime and build something that nobody has ever built,” Morris says.

Feinberg, meanwhile, has already built something that he’s very proud of — a model of a dragon that he made using a 3-D printer.

“It’s the best ever,” he notes, “if I do say so myself.”


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About David Floyd
David Floyd was a reporter for the Mountain Xpress. He previously worked as a general-assignment reporter for the Johnson City Press.

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One thought on “Local schools prepare for a future built on code

  1. Amy Hales

    I’d like to have seen quotes from girls at the camp. Gender bias in tech is real, and you provided further evidence with this article.

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