SAN FRANCISCO – Learning how to code has a bit of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde reputation.
On the one hand, it promises to be a path to job stability, given that by 2020 some one million computer science jobs will go unfilled in the U.S., according to the Department of Labor.
On the other, “the mythology seems to imply that you really have to be a genius in order to code,” says Danielle Feinberg, director of photography and lighting at Pixar. “That’s why it’s important to create ways to just get people to just try it, because that’s when you might get pulled in.”
To try and demystify the art of creating digital images through code, Google has joined forces with Pixar to create a new online coding exercise just in time for the nation’s annual Computer Science Education Week, executives at both companies tell USA TODAY.
Beginning Monday, visitors to Google’s Made with Code site will be able to animate scenes from the life of Riley, the star of Pixar’s latest computer-generated feature film, Inside Out. Using Blockly, an aptly named computer coding language that allows commands to be dragged and dropped into place in block format, users get to see how code can create visually appealing stories.
While anyone can access Made with Code, the year-old project’s prime focus is on getting girls interested in coding, given that 74% of girls express an interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses in middle school but by high school only .3% have followed up on that desire.
“Girls love animation and simply may not know computer science is connected to that,” says Kate Parker, Made with Code’s program manager, who adds that the site also explores the intersection of tech and fashion, arts and other disciplines. “By high school, girls tend to self-select out of coding, and that should change.”
The latest in a series of ongoing Gallup polls commissioned by Google revealed that a leading factor in deterring girls from computer science careers is the fact that they perceive coders to be largely white and male. Of those polled, only 18% of girls said they were “very likely” to pursue CS in the future, compared to 35% of boys.
A new documentary currently making the festival rounds tackles the same disconnect. CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap, from filmmaker Robin Hauser Reynolds, features insights into why women often opt-out of computer science.
WOMEN WEREN’T ALWAYS IN CODING SHADOWS
One particularly intriguing fact highlighted by the movie is that in the early 1980s an almost equal number of men and women were in the tech field, but women started dropping out in great numbers just as Hollywood and television started to portray programmers and hackers as exclusively male. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates became poster wunderkinds for computing, even though history is filled with seminal female figures such as Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper.
“Ours is a perception campaign,” says Parker, noting that Made with Code also features videos of successful women coders. New additions focus on Feinberg and her Pixar colleague Fran Kalal, a technical director who helped digitally design the wardrobes for the characters in Inside Out, which takes viewers inside the mind of Riley and introduces us to her key emotions: Disgust, Fear, Anger, Sadness and Joy.
The Inside Out Made with Code/Pixar project takes users through three levels of basic coding, the first of which showcases the importance of sequencing (ordering actions, the second involves looping (repeating actions) and the last if/then scenarios (using code to instruct digital assets to react a certain way given how other assets act). The scenes feature Riley romping in a park and playing ice hockey. Every time a user successfully completes an animation sequence, a scene from the movie is unlocked for viewing.
Last holiday season, Made with Code allowed girls to use computer science to digitally program lights on Christmas trees outside the White House.
Other initiatives planned for this year’s Computer Science Education Week include Cartoon Network’s coding tutorials using MIT Media Lab’s Scratch language, which also uses a simple block approach to coding. Kids can animate characters from the network’s We Bare Bears series.
Another coordinated push to get kids coding especially during next week’s CS spotlight is Hour of Code, whose website provides an hour of coding tutorials in 40 languages that so far has been sampled by nearly 150 million people.
To reach more girls, Hour of Code, put on by Code.org, is featuring a Star Wars: The Force Awakens themed tutorial from Princess Leia or Rey on how to build their own Star Wars games and program the droids R2-D2, C-3PO and BB-8.
President Obama, who in 2014 became the first U.S. president to write a line of code, has been vocal on the need for the nation’s schools to incorporate coding into its curriculum. Over the past few years, the number of organizations focused on making sure the computer science pipeline doesn’t dry up has grown, and includes names such as Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code and CODE2040.
Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava on Twitter: @marcodellacava
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