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Cracking the code: Schools ramp up computer science teaching

FARGO - It was 3 p.m. Wednesday and nearly the end of the academic day at Davies High School. But that wasn't stopping Ullrich Reichenbach's students from turning big rocks into little rocks.

Fargo Davies High junior Dylan Ystebo goes over his computer coding work with instuctor Ullrich Reichenbach.David Samson / The Forum
Fargo Davies High junior Dylan Ystebo goes over his computer coding work with instuctor Ullrich Reichenbach.David Samson / The Forum

FARGO – It was 3 p.m. Wednesday and nearly the end of the academic day at Davies High School.

But that wasn't stopping Ullrich Reichenbach's students from turning big rocks into little rocks.

Or, more appropriately, big asteroids into dust.

Several of the students in Advanced Placement Java computer programming were finishing an exercise in computer programming, working to get the spaceships in their version of the video game "Asteroids" - and their coding skills - to the next level.

For some in the class, coding is nearly as easy as breathing. There's just more homework.


"I just think it's fun. I'm interested in computers," said Christian Ressler, who wants to take up computer engineering or programming after he graduates. "It's not too hard. It's pretty easy to pass."

A love of video games drew Dylan Ystebo to take the introductory and AP Java classes. That, and he found trying to teach himself how to code frustrating.

"You can only learn so much from the Internet," the junior said.

"If you pay attention in class and you do the work, it's relatively easy. I knocked out all the assignments in the last two weeks in just two hours," Ystebo said.

Reichenbach has been playing around with coding since he was in sixth grade and he taught himself computer programming in high school.

He said computer science offers a wealth of good-paying jobs for those willing to give it a chance.

"There are hundreds of thousands of jobs out there. If you look at our technology today, (computer coding is) endemic out there," Reichenbach said. "Try it and you may like it." is a national organization dedicated to expanding access to computer science and increasing participation in the field by women and students of color.


The nonprofit reports there are now 589,273 open computing jobs in the United States. But last year there were only 38,175 computer science students who graduated.

Education not filling demand

Being able to learn code in a K-12 school is also a hit or miss proposition. Only 29 states allow students to count computer science toward their high school graduation requirements, reports. And 75 percent of schools don't offer computer science. reports there are 667 open computing jobs in North Dakota and 13,346 in Minnesota. However, in 2013, North Dakota had 111 computer science graduates, while in Minnesota, there were 669 computer science grads.

Last spring, just 27 North Dakota high school students took the AP Computer Science exam, reports. Minnesota had 666 high school students take the AP exam.

Efforts to increase teaching of computer science are increasing locally, said Denise Jonas, director of the Cass County Career and Technical Education Consortium.

The consortium pools the resources of Fargo, West Fargo, Northern Cass and Central Cass school districts to offer a wider array of courses.

Fargo schools offer the Java classes, while West Fargo offers a dual-credit (high school/college) course in Visual Basic programming, Jonas said.


West Fargo also works with Microsoft's Technology Education and Literacy in Schools program, which pairs computer science professionals with teachers to teach computer science, Jonas said. That allowed the district to offer introductory and AP computer programming.

Next fall, students in the consortium's schools will also have a chance to take an introduction to coding and gaming course, and a mobile app development and security course, Jonas said.

Difficult finding qualified teachers

Project Lead The Way is also used in area schools. The program provides training and materials to teach STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses, which include computer science, said Jonas and Missy Eidsness, Moorhead schools' assistant superintendent of school improvement and accountability.

The Moorhead School District also has coding integrated into high school classes such as web design, drafting and automotive repair, Eidsness said. Two elementary-school computer pilot projects have also done "a very nice job" with a full day of coding instruction, Eidsness said.

This fall, Moorhead High School will also offer a computer programming course, she said.

Robotics programs, which are co-curricular at the elementary and secondary levels in West Fargo, require students to program their machines to function, giving those students a taste of coding, Jonas said.

Horizon students in Moorhead also are involved with FIRST LEGO Robotics competitions, Eidsness said.

And there is a middle-school technology camp that has been offered for several summers that introduces Fargo, west Fargo and Moorhead students to coding, Jonas said.

Eidsness said the more local schools interact with industry experts, the more they've come to realize "that there are a lot of job opportunities out there. We realized we needed to provide a stepping stone" for students into that field.

The difficulty comes in finding qualified teachers, Jonas said. Demand in the computer science field has driven up salaries, making those jobs more attractive than the classroom.

"Finding teachers to teach programming can be challenging at times," Jonas said.

Changing the culture

A measure of programming's place in K-12 education is the Advanced Placement exam in computer science, which has seen test-takers more than double since 2010. Few subjects have approached that rate of growth, though the number of those taking the exam is still a fraction of test-takers in traditional subjects such as English, history and calculus. One concerning sign is that those taking the exam tend to come from a narrow demographic band. Girls make up only 22 percent of those who take the AP computer science test, according to College Board data. Hispanics and blacks account for 9 percent and 3 percent, respectively. To broaden that base, is trying to get the subject into every American school, starting in kindergarten. Backed by some of America's biggest tech companies, the two-year-old organization has trained teachers, designed model courses and lobbied state legislatures to make computer science a subject that counts toward high school graduation. Founder Hadi Partovi said while one of the group's goals is to diversify the computer industry's workforce, another is to demystify technology that has become embedded in daily life. "Everyone should understand how the Internet works, what an algorithm is," he said. "For the majority of today's adults, this is all black magic."

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