The robotic car wasn’t following Kiera Riemer’s instructions. It wasn’t going far enough and it wouldn’t make the turn that the first-grader tried to punch into her control panel.

Then, with persistence and a bit of help from her teacher at Clear Springs Elementary in Minnetonka: success.

“It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes,” Riemer said. “You just do it again.”

Riemer’s school is one of about 50 across the Twin Cities area participating this week in Hour of Code, a national challenge designed to spark interest in computer science by engaging schoolchildren to participate in one hour of writing code.

Coding for young people has been endorsed by CEOs, musicians and President Obama. In schools across Minnesota, advocates say a stronger computer science curriculum will help the state meet future job demand while enhancing problem-solving skills in students.

Several large school districts in other states, such as San Francisco and New York City, now offer computer science in all public schools, and states such as Washington have allocated funding for the subject.

Though Minnesota is strengthening its STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, and computer science now counts as a math-credit requirement for high school, the state doesn’t have any specific plans regarding computer science education, the state Department of Education said in a statement.

But some schools are moving ahead. The Minnetonka schools are exploring a partnership with the St. Paul Public Schools, the Minneapolis Public Schools and Code.org, a Seattle nonprofit group that promotes computer science education among women and students of color. Jeremy Engebretson, a technology coach in Minnetonka schools, said a logical next step for the state would be thinking about where coding best fits into state standards.

According to Code.org, which sponsors Hour of Code, Minnesota has 14,000 computer science job openings — three times the state’s average occupational demand. A typical job might be software engineering at Medtronic or website development at Ameriprise Financial.

“For us, it’s more than actually just finding a job,” said Alice Steinglass, Code.org’s vice president of product and marketing. “Given the world we live in, it’s good to know how the Internet works or how apps are built.”

The benefits extend into classrooms, too, said Heather Hanson, principal at the School of Engineering and Arts, a Golden Valley school in the Robbinsdale district. The school has given its students coding opportunities since it opened in 2012.

“It’s limitless, what they can do,” Hanson said.

Many languages fall under the umbrella of computer programming, but at its most basic level, coding is telling the computer what to do in ways it can understand. Mats Heimdahl, head of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota, said high school students would benefit from courses on computational thinking.

Tech-related fields have low numbers of minorities and women. Diversity is important because different people bring varied innovations to the table, said Ruth Mesfun, who teaches at a charter school in New York City and is co-founder of the blog People of Color in Tech.

Cara Rieckenberg, program coordinator at the School of Engineering and Arts, said that computer science has helped her students become more persistent problem-solvers and that her staff would benefit from more training in how to teach programming.

“We definitely drive our curriculum and our instruction based upon the mantra that our kids are going to have jobs that we don’t even know exist yet,” she said. “We would be doing them a disservice if we didn’t incorporate this into what we do.”

One morning this week, third-graders at the School of Engineering and Arts were glued to laptops for their Hour of Code practice. The students use Scratch, a free programming language developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to help young people learn coding through games and interactive stories. There’s so much interest that the students started an after-school Scratch club.

Victoria Kind, a third-grader, was programming the movements of Anna, from the film “Frozen,” on her computer screen.

When they’re all coding away on their devices, it’s impossible to tell a gifted and talented student from one who has special needs, Rieckenberg said. “It’s a language that all kids can speak,” she said.

 

Read more about Hour of Code at code.org and diversity in high tech at peopleofcolorintech.com.