Story at a glance

  • Many schools, especially in underprivileged districts, are lagging behind in teaching technology.
  • Amazon has launched an ambitious program to combat this problem.
  • “We call it a childhood to career program,” says a spokesperson, who points to various components appropriate for different age groups.

If you were around during the 80s, it’s a lot of fun watching it trend all over again. This is especially true when it comes to Generation Z, the kids born with smartphones in their hands, who are obsessed with 80s-set “Stranger Things” and grooving on a decade in which we thought — to quote Douglas Adam — that “digital watches were a pretty neat idea.”

Sure, we had the veneer and adoration of tech, with synth pioneers like Kraftwerk and sci fi everywhere, including a sitcom about a robot child dressed as a doll, but we were still putting film in cameras and using cash like Neanderthals. We were panting for tech, being teased with the possibilities of what kids now view as commonplace. If Millennials and Gen Zers actually got to experience the decade we’re all enjoying from afar, they’d find it pretty primitive.

In 1983 Peter Grier of the Christian Science Monitor assured people that being tech savvy was not yet important for job seekers. Jobs including “nurse's aides, janitors, sales clerks, and cashiers,” would be the 1980s most in-demand jobs.

Today site reliability engineer, app developer and other jobs no one ever envisioned in the 1980s are some of the most widely available — but today’s kids may be less prepared for them than we imagine. In fact, many of them appear to be stuck in the 80s.

“These are the disciplines that are fueling our future,” said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on New Jersey Spotlight upon inaugurating a plan to integrate computer science into schools beginning at the kindergarten level.

According to Computer Science Education Week, students enjoy computer classes more than any traditional classes such as math, English, history and science. Among the Top Ten Reasons to study Computer Science listed on DePauw University’s website are the facts that tech floods our lives and its possibilities are limitless. Yet only one-quarter of U.S. schools teach computer science.

Inside Philanthropy lists several companies that have funding available for STEM programs, which could open a new world to kids who will, soon enough, be running ours.

Since Amazon is one of the biggest things to ever to be born from the internet, it’s fitting that tech education is another thing they’re prepared to deliver.

The Amazon Future Engineer program aims to help students in underserved communities, from kindergarten to college, be ready join and build the future.

“We call it a childhood to career program,” with various components appropriate for different age groups, says Allison Flicker, corporate communications specialist at Amazon. That expansiveness might seem surprising but “we have a really long-term vision of the project,” an eye on the long haul that Flicker says is typical Amazon style.

Exposure to tech

The exposure tech starts with kindergarten kids learning games using coding to gauge their interest; it then extends to older students, 100 of whom will get an Amazon Future Engineer scholarship. That includes $10,000 a year to study computer science at a four-year college or university, plus a guaranteed offer to intern at Amazon.

As of early November, the program was funding intro and AP computer science courses in more than 2,000 high schools, serving 100,000 students across the country. Focusing on underserved or underrepresented communities means the program might be apt for Title I schools or where they are trying to get more female or minority students involved in computer science.

Amazon has numerous partners in the program, including organizations like Edhesive, which provide the curriculum and other resources and help find schools for the program.

Another partner is is Code.org, an educational program and creator of the globally celebrated Hour of Code. During this educational event anyone can sponsor or participate in learning about coding to see how programs work. It’s a “low barrier” way to get familiar with what, for some, is new and possibly a little intimidating, though we literally have it in the palm of our hand, says Kirsten O’Brien, social media manager for Code.org.

An Hour of Code “gets students excited about computer science, gives them a sense of empowerment, feeling like they can actually do this, and helps break down stereotypes of what CS is and what a computer scientist looks like,” she says. Obama even got into the act one year.

If you want to check it out, Amazon Future Engineer and Amazon Web Services will be part of a week-long Hour of Code event Dec. 9 - 15.

Helping teachers

“I’m over the moon about the content itself, because I know that it’s relevant,” says Jami Hackler, who teaches the Amazon Future Engineer program at Poteau High School in rural Poteau, Okla.

With “the kind of jobs there are,” for kids graduating now, “there’s got to be a technology element,” she says. In the first part of the two-semester curriculum she sees her students learning computer science basics but getting fringe benefits like the confidence that comes with solving a problem yourself and seeing a tough task through to a successful outcome.

At Twin Peaks Charter Academy in Longmont, Col., just outside Boulder, many of the kids have parents in the tech industry. The school, though, stresses classical education, so there is a Latin teacher but no set tech curriculum; at least not until recently when Sandy Sandman-Schafer was tapped to teach tech to high-school level students. Amazon Future Engineer and partners turned out to be a perfect fit.

“I could be learning this stuff as well as having a good, solid curriculum to teach my kids,” Sandman-Schafer says. She instructs “10 gentlemen and 7 ladies,” including some Special Ed kids, all who came in with varying levels of computer science understanding. They work together and separately and celebrate together when they do well.

Students aren’t the only ones who need the social element in the learning environment, though. The Edhesive teacher’s forum allowed her to connect with teachers from all over the country, some experienced, others with novice nerves, all bringing the camaraderie of this new experience to each other. 

Both Hackler and Sandman-Schafer expressed deep gratitude for the scholastic and human resources. The efforts have helped them have both Latin and Python in the “language” curriculum.

Published on Dec 11, 2019