Can everyone learn to program computers? A Camas High senior believes they can, and he’s hoping to help them on their way with a free “Everyone Should Learn to Code” class at the Camas Public Library.
“I believe anyone can learn it, as long as the person is willing to think a little harder, and if the teacher explains it in a way that is clear,” Shile Wen, 17, said about learning the basics of computer coding, or developing the set of instructions that make computers, robots and apps do the things they do. “I think the main problem with many programmers is that they’re not very good at speaking about what they’re doing. They’re too far into the (computer programming) world and they talk in a way that beginners can’t understand.”
Wen grew up in a family comfortable with the inner workings of technology. Both of his parents — mother, Shuping Chen, and father, Ling Wen — are software engineers, and his older brother, Shicon, a 2014 Camas High graduate, just became an electrical engineer.
Wen started to follow in his parents’ footsteps after a Saturday Academy class during middle school taught him about computer coding, but it wasn’t until his sophomore year at Camas High, when he joined the robotics team — Team Mean Machine — that Wen really started getting into the language of computer programming.
“The summer after my sophomore year, I taught myself Java (a popular computer coding language) by reading a book about it for eight hours straight.”
He put those skills to use right away, helping Team Mean Machine in competition by crunching data in real time to figure out other teams’ strengths and weaknesses and give the Camas team a competitive edge.
Last summer, between his junior and senior years, Wen decided he wanted to branch out and use his skills to help other people learn the basics of coding.
“I saw that we were lucky, in Camas, which is more affluent, but also in a first-world country, because there were so many people living in places who don’t have the same opportunities,” Wen said. “Even in America, and even in Camas there are people who don’t have a lot of opportunities. I wanted a world where everyone has the same opportunity to succeed. (Computer) programming is a high-income job. If people could learn to code, they would have a better chance of succeeding. Even in Camas, there are people struggling.”
Wen is starting his free coding classes on a small, local level, offering a few short lessons at the Camas Public Library, but dreams of taking his training to a much broader audience. “If I can start local, maybe it can grow to Washington, the U.S. and even the whole world,” Wen said.
The Camas senior’s plans may sound pie-in-the-sky, but he is correct in his assertion that knowing how to code and program computers can help people have more career opportunities.
According to Code.org, a nonprofit supported by tech giants like Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, computing occupations are the main source of new wages in the United States and count for more than half of all projected new jobs in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
“Computer science one of the most in-demand college degrees. And computing is used all around us and in virtually every field. It’s foundational knowledge that all students need,” the organization states on its website, code.org. “But computer science is marginalized throughout education. Fewer than half of U.S. schools offer any computer science courses and only 8 percent of STEM graduates study it. We need to improve access for all students, including groups who have traditionally been underrepresented.”
In Washington state, according to statistics compiled by code.org researchers, there are about 17,000 computer jobs available and those jobs have an average annual salary of $107,000.
Despite the demand and high pay, however, many young people are looking to different fields and ignoring computer science courses, or not even getting the chance to take a computer science class.
The code.org researchers found that, in Washington, in 2015, the state had 1,212 computer science graduates coming out of its colleges, and only 2,637 high school students in this state took the Advanced Placement (AP) computer science exam in 2017.
Women and minorities are highly underrepresented in the field — 28 percent of the high school students who took the computer science college-level test were female; black students accounted for only 43 of the 2,637 test-takers, while Hispanic or Latino students made up another 199, and only eight of the test-takers were Native American or Pacific Islander.
Often, students don’t have an opportunity to learn about computer science in school. Only 135 Washington state schools offered an AP computer science class during the 2016-17 school year. And, in 2016, universities in Washington state did not graduate even one new teacher prepared to teach computer science.
Wen said he realizes how lucky Camas High students are to have even one computer science class at their school. Next year, Wen hopes to study computer programming and maybe business at college. Although he would love to go to a top-tier school like Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) or Stanford, he said he also would be happy at a school like the University of Washington, where his brother went.
“I’m working on my (college) applications right now,” Wen said.
He also is teaching a couple free “learn to code” classes. The next one is scheduled for 5 to 6 p.m., Friday, Sept. 28, at the Camas Public Library, 625 N.E. Fourth Ave. The class is open to teens and adults, but Wen especially hopes to attract a few younger people who are unsure if computer programming is for them.
“My advice for people is that now is a good time to figure out whether this would be a career path they would consider,” Wen said. “It’s better to figure it out now, than when it’s too late. But, really, this class is open to anyone. It never hurts to know how to code.”
Karen Nicholson, who organizes events like Wen’s free coding class at the Camas library, said she is open to hosting more coding education seminars if people want them.
Participants should bring their own laptop computer, if they have one. If not, the library has six Chromebooks available for people to check out, using their Camas library card.
“You can code using an online (program),” Wen said. “So a laptop would be best, but Chromebooks work, too.”
Interested in taking a coding class with Wen, but can’t make it to the library seminar? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.