Last week thousands of middle and high school students and educators from around the state gathered at the URI Ryan Center for the second annual CS4RI Computer Science Summit. On the center’s floor and around the concourse nearly 100 exhibitors were on hand with presentations, demonstrations and opportunities for hands-on, interactive experiences for adults and students alike.
Hailing from Cranston were nearly 40 students from several of the Cranston Area Career and Technical Center’s (CACTC) computer science programs, including the Interactive Digital Media program and the Computer Aided Design/Drafting program. Although not the top winner, Alexandria Crouse, a senior CACTC Interactive Digital Media student was a finalist in Governor Raimondo’s 2017 CS4RI Award Winner, which was announced that day.
The events began at 8:30 a.m., allowing staff and students to circulate the exhibits for three hours prior to the speaking portion of the day at 11:30 a.m. Some of the many presentations students attended and participated in included Raspberry Pi, Code Cracking, Swift Playgrounds, Hardware Hacking, 3D Imaging and Voice Recognition, Cyber Crimes, and Google Expedition. There was also a panel presentation about Careers in Computer Science beyond Coding and the RI Mobile Maker Lab was on hand for students to rotate through as well.
Students had the opportunity to speak to representatives from Brown University, the University of Rhode Island, New England Institute of Technology, Salve Regina, Roger Williams University, Rhode Island College and many other post-secondary education representatives. Additionally, there were dozens of industry partners on hand such as Microsoft, Citizens Bank, FM Global, Lifespan, CVS Health, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, and Amica, speaking to students about careers involving computer science, creativity, design and 21st Century Learning skills.
The speaking portion of the event included an introduction from Barbara Cottam, who was there representing Citizens Bank and Rhode Island’s Board of Education. She congratulated the students on all of the learning that had taken place already that morning and explained why it was so important.
“I have seen so much learning and interaction among students and our partners here this morning,” she said. “I can tell you with certainty that expertise in computer science is one of the critical skills that young people need to consider as you consider your future careers. Every one of you here today is ahead of the game.”
She asked the students to consider some important statistics.
“There are more than 486,000 computer science jobs available today, yet last year there were only 43,000 computer science graduates. So think about that: so many jobs, so few qualified people to fill them. So a job is out there, just waiting for you. In the two years CS4RI has been in existence, RI has tripled the number of AP computer science programs, we’ve trained more than 500 teachers through CS4RI professional learning opportunities, and we have created a STEM pathway endorsement for students as part of our new high school diploma regulations.”
She encouraged students to go for that extra endorsement on top of their regular high school diplomas and reminded them of the wise words of one of the world’s original computer science experts.
“Whether or not you become an expert in coding, you don’t necessarily have to, because knowledge of computer science will make you a better candidate for any job or any school or any career entrance, so make sure that you get that knowledge, and think about what Steve Jobs said. ‘Everyone should learn to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.’”
Cottam introduced the day’s Keynote Speaker, Girls Who Code’s Leah Gilliam, who serves as the organization’s Vice President of Education, Strategy and Innovation. Gilliam spoke to the audience about the work being done at Girls Who Code to change the landscape of computer science in order to attract more diversity to the field.
“You guys are already ahead of the curve, but it’s important to think about the larger landscape of computer science education,” she said. “Right now in the United States, your access to ideas of computer science can be really limited based on who you are, where you live and the economic background of your family. That can be a huge issue. People are talking about technology and innovation as if they are one piece, but we have this huge problem, that everyone doesn’t have access to this thing we think is going to transform the way we live and do business in the future.”
She spoke about the issues of access and the gender gap in computer science, both of which are being addressed through the work being done at Girls Who Code.
“The gender gap describes the problem that there are fewer women working in the computer science field than there are men, despite the fact that women make up 51 percent of the population,” she said. “Equity can really impact the kinds of products that we see in the world. Computer science and coding in many ways is kind of the new reading, one of the many things that you need to understand and know how to do, no matter what it is you want to do. It is important that girls understand that they can be computer scientists.”
She summarized what she described as “The Girls Who Code Special Sauce” with three components: career, capability, and community.
“People always ask us what success looks like,” Gilliam said. “Just having more people doing more things is going to make a huge difference. Girls who are laughing and working and having fun together is what success looks like. We want to see more people who look like all of us, out there and having fun.”
RI Education Commissioner Ken Wagner introduced Governor Gina Raimondo and thanked her for her groundbreaking initiatives in computer science education in Rhode Island.
“Governor Gina Raimondo has helped lead our state to the front of the pack nationally, when it comes to computer science education. We are now a state to watch across the country,” he said. “Recent data released on the college level coursework has showed that Rhode Island has emerged as a top state in the country for offering AP computer science opportunities. The governor understands there are two main ways to increase equity and opportunity for all students. The first is making sure all students can read joyfully fluently by third grade and the second is making sure all students have the opportunity to code by the time they are in high school.”
Governor Raimondo thanked all partners and educators for the success of the CS4RI event.
“I believe that the next Mark Zuckerberg is probably a young woman, a young Latina or a young guy of color, who is taking the CS4RI class. You have the talent and we want to make sure you have the access to the classes so you can go start that company,” she said. “I just talked to a young woman from Barrington who said, ‘I didn’t know it could be this fun.’ She wasn’t taking a computer science class per se, it’s a business class but they’re integrating computer science into it, and that’s what this is all about. It’s not just sitting alone in a room, coding, it’s about learning how to do marketing or sports marketing or business, with computer science skills. Right now in RI there are 1300 jobs available for people with computer science skills and I want you guys to be able to get those jobs because you have those skills.”
She shared good news with the audience.
“A couple years ago when I started this program, across the whole state, only 42 took the AP Computer Science exam, zero people of color and I think only 12 or 14 were girls. All the jobs are going to people with computer skills and only 42 people took the computer science test. This spring 265 students took it, a 500 percent increase in only a year and a half doing this work. In 2015, 350 students graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Computer Science from RI colleges and universities. Last year it was 800. ”
She presented her next goal.
“I’d like to say by 2025 let’s double that number because if we have 1300 jobs for students with computer skills, I want to make sure we’re pumping those numbers out of RI colleges and universities to get those jobs. It means people of every race, zip code and gender, wherever you started out in life have the opportunities to get those jobs.”
Cranston students who attended the event had positive feedback about their experiences.
“My favorite part was the Mobile Maker Lab,” said Ariana Deal. “It was cool seeing sewing applied to technology and computer science.”
David Boffa liked the hands-on experiences best, and Zachary Young agreed.
“I liked how it was interactive and how it had all the students there, engaged in what they were learning,” he said.