After a series of business-heavy morning sessions at the Code Conference, attendees got a change of pace with a joint session featuring Code.org co-founder Hadi Partovi and Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe.
During an onstage conversation with Re/code’s Walt Mossberg, the pair highlighted the grand challenge of getting more students into coding, particularly females and minorities.
The nonprofit Code.org aims to boost computer science skills by making classes available in more schools. Specifically, they want to make coding part of the core curriculum in education, alongside reading, writing and arithmetic.
“Technology is changing the world around us,” Partovi said. “But we’re leaving behind the vast majority of our children who aren’t getting basic knowledge about how to participate in the new world.”
“Ninety percent of schools don’t offer [computer science classes] — that seems to me un-American,” he added.
A growing amount of attention has been paid to getting more students interested in STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — but both Partovi and Klawe said the effort is too broadly defined.
There are more graduates than jobs in fields like biology and chemistry, but a yawning gap between graduating computer science students and open positions.
“It drives me crazy when Obama says we need more STEM graduates,” Klawe said. “Because we overproduce in biology and chemistry in particular, and then they don’t get jobs that use any of that education.”
She added that programming skills help students or professionals in any field they choose.
“From my perspective, computer science is something that everyone needs,” she said.
A number of tech leaders recently took up the computer science curriculum cause in California, issuing a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown. CEO signatories included Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, Square’s Jack Dorsey and Dropbox’s Drew Houston, among others.
Last year, Code.org launched Hour of Code, an effort to expose millions of students to computer science by encouraging them to take online programming tutorials. They were aiming to reach 10 million students, but Partovi said on Wednesday that 35 million have now engaged in the program. Many go on to take the additional 15 hours to 25 hours of classes on the site.
A 2012 Microsoft report attempted to quantify the U.S. tech job gap: “Between 2010 and 2020, the American economy will annually produce more than 120,000 additional computing jobs that will require at least a bachelor’s degree, but the country’s higher education system is currently producing only 40,000 bachelor’s degrees in computer science annually.”
But some have called into question certain assumptions in these studies, arguing they reflect cherry-picked and self-serving facts for employers looking to recruit more H-1B visa workers, drive down wages and avoid the costs of on-the-job training.
As the New York Times wrote in an editorial:
Corporate executives have valuable perspectives on the economy, but they also have an interest in promoting the notion of a skills gap. They want schools and, by extension, the government to take on more of the costs of training workers that used to be covered by companies as part of on-the-job employee development. They also want more immigration, both low and high skilled, because immigrants may be willing to work for less than their American counterparts.
Partovi acknowledged that tech companies are very interested in getting more qualified workers. But he insists the problem is a very real one that extends well beyond one sector. He said two-thirds of computer science jobs are in government or industries like retail and banking.
He added that they’re aiming to hook kids in kindergarten on programming, which is not effective as a near or even middle-term workforce development strategy.
Klawe has been more focused on the lack of diversity in computer science, particularly the shortage of female coders.
While women hold nearly half of all jobs in the United States, they fill less than a quarter of so-called STEM positions, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Similarly, blacks and Latinos only accounted for 12 percent of those jobs, despite representing a quarter of the workforce.
Under Klawe’s leadership, Harvey Mudd College just handed out more engineering degrees to women than men, and the college has boosted female computer science graduates from 10 percent in 2006 to 40 percent currently.
The school has instituted a series of changes to improve female participation in the field, including changing how classes are described, dividing students up according to experience levels, finding ways for students to apply their skills beyond the classes and exposing them to female role models in the industry.
Klawe said companies should help spread that mission by pressuring the universities they work with to shift practices in similar ways. Colleges need to make introduction to computer science courses “more relevant, engaging and fun,” she said.
So far, Code.org has raised about $12 million from companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. But to really solve the problem, Partovi said they’d need about $300 million.
“We’re far away from the money we need, but [that $300 million] can unlock a half trillion dollars in economic opportunity,” he said.
Re/code‘s Lauren Goode contributed to this story.
Update: This story has been updated to correct the name of Harvey Mudd College on second reference.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.