Helping Students to Crack the Code

by Dr. Elizabeth and Nathan Blecharczyk

Sometimes, just being exposed to the right thing can inspire a lifetime of passion and curiosity.

That’s certainly been true for us both. As we reflect on the fortunate circumstances which have shaped our lives, we want to work to ensure that every child has the opportunity to reach his or her potential.

There are many ways to pursue this vision, but one is particularly personal: We believe every young person in America should have the opportunity to learn how to code.

Computing occupations represent the fastest-growing, best-paying, and largest sector of all new wages in the U.S. We believe that every child deserves the chance to access these new economic opportunities. More broadly, computers are transforming most industries, and therefore understanding how they work is becoming increasingly relevant to most careers. Fundamentally, coding helps to develop more generalized skills such as critical thinking and problem solving.

Growing up, Nathan was lucky that his dad was an electrical engineer. It meant that he had access to a computer at home, and even books about computer programming. At the age of 12 he began to teach himself how to code. By age 14, he had started a business on the Internet.

Coding opened up a whole new world for Nathan. He gained confidence in his ability to learn and apply his skills in ways that created real value. He made enough money to pay for college and was sold on being a lifelong entrepreneur. Quite simply, without exposure to computers at a young age, he wouldn’t be where he is today.

In our experience, exposure to a new subject can be enough to engage and motivate a young person and ultimately unlock doors to significant opportunities. For Elizabeth, a high school internship at a local hospital opened the door to the possibility of a career in medicine. It was something she had never imagined but it ultimately transformed her life.

But the reality is many young people lack access to such learning opportunities.

Right now, only 40% of schools in America offer coding classes, and only 16% offer an advanced placement computer science course. In 2016, the Advanced Placement exam in computer science also had the worst gender diversity across all advanced placement courses, with 77% participation by men and 23% by women. Participation by under-represented minorities in the exam was also a low 15%. Yet women and underrepresented groups represent 65% of the entire U.S. population.

Fortunately, an organization called Code.org is working to dramatically increase access to coding and computer science for young people, particularly women and underrepresented minorities. Today, we are honored to announce our donation of $1 million to further their efforts. This gift is part of our Giving Pledge, a commitment we made in 2016 to dedicate the majority of our wealth over time to philanthropy. The Pledge was started by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates — who are both professional and personal heroes of ours. We want to thank Warren, Bill and Melinda for their inspiration.

This remarkable organization has created its own computer science curriculum, learning platform, and coding tools to help students and teachers from any background break through what used to be a steep learning curve, and more easily get started with coding.

Within just a few years, this innovative approach has yielded impressive results and has already made a real impact. 19 million students and 600,000 teachers are now on Code.org and utilizing their materials. And, in 2017, Code.org was the most commonly used curriculum for teaching the new Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles course. Addressing diversity issues is foundational to Code.org’s work, and they have seen promising results — 30% of the course takers were women and 29% were underrepresented minorities — results which bode well for a technology industry in dire need of diversity. And finally, 70% of these students say they want to continue studying computer science after high school.

We are delighted by the track record of Code.org and to be able to contribute to its ongoing mission to give all young people access to an extremely relevant computer science education.

Dr. Elizabeth Blecharczyk is a pediatrician and Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in Neonatal and Developmental Medicine at Stanford Medicine. Nathan Blecharczyk is co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Airbnb.