Ruthe Farmer on empowering all kids to create with technology

As the Chief Evangelist for the CSforAll, Ruthe Farmer knows about the importance of widespread computer science education for the next generation. She’s been a long-time expert on diversity & inclusion in technology and engineering. We sat down with her to discuss how educators and technologists can empower all kids to build the digital future they want to live in.

FWD50: People speak about coding as the new literacy. Do you think that it’s that important in terms of the future of our society and the success of children?

Ruthe: I think that computational thinking is as important. Coding is a subset of that. We’re talking more about the ability to understand computation and use it in the process of breaking down a problem into all its parts. That understanding is going to serve kids in all parts of life.

If you’re not in the loop to become a creator, producer and controller of technology then you are simply at the mercy of those who do have those skills. It’s similar to not being able to read a century ago.

FWD50: Where are we lagging right now? What is the biggest work that needs to be done in the West in terms of computer science education?

Ruthe: We’re really lagging in terms of equality of access. There’s a certain level of society that you need to be in. Not everyone can go to Maker Faires. Not everyone has the devices at home or the time needed to play with them to learn technology skills.

It’s not broadly taught in the schools, so that’s creating yet another socio-economic divide in society, especially in rural communities. We’re still pretty far behind in some areas around broadband access. That causes a problem because the people developing a lot of the curriculum, the tools, live in places like San Francisco and New York — big urban centres where there’s ubiquitous access to the internet and resources. They then design tools that rely on that ubiquitous access. One of the challenges is bridging this broadband divide.

FWD50: Are there any organizations or individuals who you think are doing a really great job of bridging this divide?

Ruthe: In the US we have an organization called 4-H. It’s more than 100 years old and historically has worked with farming communities. The 4-H community has stepped up to bring computer science and agricultural technology to their rural members. I think that is a tremendous thing because they know those communities best and they’re embedded in those communities.

There’s a school district in Virginia that decided, for the cost of us building an in-school wired network, they could actually build a 4G wireless network for their community. They’re expanding the point where learning takes place. They can then justify spending the same amount of money that they’d spend on wiring school buildings to build a wireless network. This is in the rural mountains of Virginia. Now any kid using their school access can get on the internet anywhere in their community.

FWD50: How do you help parents who may not be digitally literate support their children or at least understand what is going on?

Ruthe: This is an issue that I think people don’t quite get the gravity of. If you look at Silicon Valley, it’s 85% male and mostly white and Asian. The next generation that’s going to come into the workforce is over 50% female and over 50% minorities.

Our prior model of the children of engineers becoming engineers breaks down pretty quickly then. What we’re really focusing on now is on family engagement. Research shows that it’s the biggest influencer for success in this field for youth, especially girls. How do we upskill parents who do not have a technical background? We have all these parents who are struggling to help their kids with their math homework and we’re going to ask them to do computer science homework? That’s a whole other enchilada.

There’s this fantastic program called Family Code Night that’s been picked up all over the nation. It’s a one-night elementary school thing where parents and kids learn coding together. That’s about building a booster club at the elementary school level — helping parents to understand what their kids are learning so they can start to learn along with them.

FWD50: Alongside that is the whole issue of screen time. Where do you draw the line between the excessive use of digital technology that’s unhealthy and the emergence of a healthy learning environment?

Ruthe: There are a lot of really great unplugged activities that can teach you the foundation of computational thinking. One is CSUnplugged.org, which I love. It’s available in nine languages, so it’s very accessible. I encourage educators to leverage that.

When we give kids the ability to create and not just consume technology, I think that’s the healthier way to be engaging with your device. I’m not at all hopeful for a world where kids spend all their time on devices.

I am hopeful that the people who create the technology of the future need to look like the people who live in our world. To reflect all the perspectives and diversity of that world. It just doesn’t right now. Once we do have a diversity of people creating technology we’ll begin to see a lot of different types of stuff coming out.

FWD50: For people who have been in tech for a long time, we’re kind of orphans. There was a computer club at school maybe or kids just did stuff on their own in their basements. Now there’s a whole infrastructure and environment for lucky kids, not all kids, but so many kids are going to code camp and having all kinds of creative experiences. What’s going to come up out of that we really don’t know.

Ruthe: There is a set of kids I’m seeing that want to know how they can do something and technology is their way to do it.

For example, I have a student who goes to Stanford now who was watching a documentary on TV about Parkinson’s. She’s noticing that the people they’re interviewing with Parkinson’s have a very common facial expression between them. She’s like “I wonder if we could use facial recognition technology to diagnose Parkinson’s.”

She built this app called Faceprint that uses big data sets photos of people with Parkinson’s to try to train an algorithm to recognize Parkinson’s early. Then it helps avert potential symptoms. She doesn’t even have a personal connection — it’s not like someone in her family had Parkinson’s. She just saw this and saw this opportunity.

As we educate a lot more people on the foundational basics of how stuff like this works I see more people taking up things as a passion project and using technology to get there.

I don’t want to be in a world where we have to have an XYZ kids code program. I want all kids to be able to understand this. We don’t have Girls Who Bicycle, right? It should be a normal thing that all kids learn. That gives everybody an equal toolkit to create the solutions that they believe need to exist in the world.

FWD50: I guess part of the challenge is funding schools today. When they don’t have the budget for technology, are there initiatives underway that can help with that?

Ruthe: I don’t think it’s actually about funding the physical technology. The real sticking point here is qualified and trained teachers. Right now the big gap, at least for us in the United States, is there’s no real pathway to become a computer science teacher when you’re graduating from teachers college. Right now with the job market, if you have technology skills, the skills to teach computer science, you’re probably going to end up in industry.

FWD50: How can the private sector step up to help kids get the education they need?

Ruthe: A lot of companies get really excited by “I’m going to bring kids to my company, we’re going to have a hackathon.” That’s all very sexy and makes for great pictures.

But the ROI for spending those same resources on a teacher is WAY higher. I’ve been encouraging companies to hire a computer science teacher as a summer intern. Have them be an agile developer, put them to work. This shows teachers what state-of-the-art technology is. If you want teachers to be teaching start-of-the-art technology they need to experience it.

I’ve heard some great examples of teachers working with tech companies. They work in the summer, part-time. That creates a relationship between that teacher and the company. Now there’s a pipeline of students interning. That can be a really great way. It costs the company something like $30,000 a year in salary, but builds a lot of long-term goodwill.

Companies like Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and Google have mindshare. So kids think: oh, those are the tech companies. If you’re a B2B company that doesn’t have much brand identity you’re always fighting this uphill battle competing for talent. If you establish a relationship with a teacher early on then you start building brand identity with kids when they’re in high school, then you become the place they want to work because they know about you.

The bottom line is: importing talent is expensive. Not only is it expensive — they often don’t stay very long. People have a tendency to go back to their homes, their communities. If you want talent that you’re going to get and keep, the best thing to do is to incubate it. Form a relationship with your local community and get those kids in there learning.

At FWD50 Ruthe is hosting a breakout session called Rethinking Education for a Digital World.