Makala Hieshima was one of the high school mentors at Santa Barbara Junior High's Hour of Code.

In unison with millions of students nationwide, all 20 school districts in Santa Barbara County participated in the Hour of Code — one week dedicated to computer coding — a global event kicked off by President Barack Obama and backed by tech giants such as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.

Notably, the number of schools across the county that participated in Hour of Code jumped from eight or nine last year to 76 this year. Leading the effort in Santa Barbara is self-described tech cheerleader David Bernier, who joined the county education office in August to promote technology and computer science in area schools.

On Thursday, a group of Santa Barbara High School students active in computer science trekked down the street to the junior high to assist in Marilyn Garza’s eighth-grade science class with the work — all but one of whom had never “coded” before.

Traditional programming is in text, but online tutorials allows beginners to use visual blocks to drag and drop programs — i.e., drawing a line to complete a square or, in more advanced work, a flower. (Try for yourself here.)

The idea is that programming is not rocket science — it’s just like playing an instrument or learning a foreign language. Those were the words of encouragement from the high schoolers on Thursday. Among them was Makala Hieshima, who is a senior at SBHS and the president of its Robotics Club. “We didn’t have anything like this [when I was in junior high],” Hieshima said. Her interest first sparked in coding when she played games online as a kid and used code to develop a character. Hieshima attested to the fact that a gender gap exists in the field, which computer science teachers are trying to close. “There has been [an effort] as I’ve been growing up,” she said.

There’s also misconception is that programming is all hard math and science, Hieshima said, but the highest level of math is actually adding and subtracting. “The computer does it all for you,” she added. At Santa Barbara StartUp Weekend, Hieshima worked on the winning team that created a light-up bike helmet they called the LUXhelmet — an LED-lit helmet coupled with an automatic brake light — that has made it to the global finals. Currently in the middle of the tedious college-application season, Hieshima applied early-decision to Williams College. She plans to major in biomedical engineering and specialize in developing prosthetics.

Bernier’s job is to get students interested and engaged in computer science to prepare them for career choices in the future. “When you look at the STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] jobs that are available, about half are computer science, but most programs are not in schools,” he said. This year, Santa Barbara High School launched a Computer Science Academy. Unlike ones across the district — the Health Academy at San Marcos or the Engineering Academy at Dos Pueblos — the new computer science academy is “open” and allows students to take just a class or two. The success was apparent among the group of high schoolers on Thursday. One told the junior high school class he just fell into it because it was the only class available. “But I started to love it,” he said.


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