20171205-bc-coding-2

Robby Lock is the center of attention as students at Downtown Elementary get to learn coding from the Google computer science roadshow Tuesday.

Henry A. Barrios/The Californian

Some kids want to grow up to be police officers, or firefighters, or maybe even the president of the United States.

Luca Garone, a brainy fifth-grader at Downtown Elementary School in Bakersfield, says none of that appeals to him. He wants to be a computer coder.

“I love technology,” said Garone, pushing up his glasses. “At my house, whenever my parents have problems with their phones, they come to me and I fix it.”

And that’s exactly the kind of problem-solving that the educators and legislators who brought Google to Downtown Elementary for an interactive coding lesson Wednesday want to see out of young kids.

The global tech company came to Bakersfield as part of the Google Computer Science Roadshow, which has visited more than 30 schools across the nation since 2016 in its mission to encourage more students to get interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Assemblymen Vince Fong and Rudy Salas were integral in getting the tech giant to Bakersfield. Salas sealed the deal over coffee with a Google employee in Sacramento the week of Thanksgiving.

Just a couple weeks later, the Google team was driving to Bakersfield to give Downtown Elementary kids a crash course in coding.

But to the surprise of the Google employees, many of the kids weren’t first-timers.

“Anybody play coding games?” Brooke Heinichen, a Google presenter, asked.

Nearly all the kids raised their hands.

A lot of the students have coded in class in the past, and it didn’t hurt that the school gave kids a crash course in coding last week ahead of the Google visit, Principal Noreen Barthelmes said.

“These kids are pretty darn smart,” Barthelmes said, adding that the school puts a special emphasis on educating students on subjects related to various technology fields. “College and career-readiness — that’s Common Core.”

The fifth-graders worked on laptops provided by Google that were loaded with a coding program called Scratch. On those laptops they created a story about characters on a boat.

But first they had to create the boat, give the ocean the motion of waves, select characters — everything from cats and polar bears to iconic sports figures — and then make them interact, all with their skills in computer coding.

Heinichen demonstrated, placing a cat and a polar bear on her screen, bobbing along an animated ocean created through a sequence of coded boxes layered atop one another.

Then she made them have a conversation.

The polar bear growled at the cat.

“Why are you mad?” the cat responded.

One kid shouted from the back of the room: “because the polar ice caps are melting!”

The cat’s response? “We need to fix this right meow.”

Some of the kids taking part in the demonstration were at least one step ahead the whole day. When Google presenters were showing them how to create waves, students John Sotelo and Roman Robles were creating characters. When Google presenters were demonstrating characters, Robles and Sotelo were lighting up the ocean in funky colors to create something that looked like a dance party on the open sea.

Both learned how to code in summer school classes and after-school programs.

“Those were way easier compared to this,” Sotelo said. “This is a bit more complex.”

Robles said he sometimes thinks about becoming a computer coder, but it isn’t his priority. Other dreams get in the way, he said, “like becoming a pro football player.”

The coding lesson was a fun way to get kids interested in coding, but Google employees stressed that coding is everywhere. PokemonGo, they said, was code. So were apps that allowed fashion designers to create stunning dresses and couture. And that auto-tuned T-Pain song the kids are digging? That was made possible through coding too, Heinichen said.

And as more jobs go unfilled in tech fields, it’s becomes critical that kids become more interested in coding, Google spokeswoman Jamie Hill said. There are far more tech jobs open than there are qualified candidates to fill them.

Roughly 68,000 computer and coding jobs went unfilled across the nation last year, Hill said.

The perspective of those jobs existing only in Silicon Valley or the Bay Area, Assemblyman Fong said, must also change.

“I think if you look at the industries in Kern County, they’re innovative companies,” Fong said, describing the unfilled need in the local job market for computer science graduates.

And as the tech field grows, more of those jobs will come to Kern County, Fong said. “It’s something I think will happen.”

These days, tech and computer science touch most things. That was evidenced when Heinichen asked the youngsters, some of their legs dangling above the ground in their seats, if any had ever solved a problem with computer science.

A precocious little boy raised his hand.

“Life,” he said, much to the amusement of those in the room.

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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