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Mecklenburg County named as home of computer coding initiative / August 23, 2017
Mecklenburg County will be the jumping-off point for a new program being introduced in southern Virginia, CodeVA. Starting with the elementary schools, teachers will learn how to teach computer science and coding to the students.

The program is funded through a grant from the Virginia Tobacco Commission championed by U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner.

On Aug. 16, Warner joined the statewide educational nonprofit CodeVA Executive Director Chris Dovi and Tim Pfohl of the Virginia Tobacco Commission to announce a $361,625 grant to train teachers in computer science and coding to serve in rural southside and southwest Virginia public schools.

It is one of the largest K-12 computer science education program funding investments in the nation, according to Warner, who shared the news during a “National Night of Code” event at Clarksville Elementary School that included elementary, middle, and high school students, their families and local educators.

So much of Virginia’s future will be driven by advances in computer science, Dovi explained — from NASA Langley, which was featured in the film Hidden Figures, to museums like the Science Museum of Virginia, Nauticus, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, to Ashburn through which more than 70 percent of the world’s internet traffic travels, to the Northern Virginia and Southside Virginia test roads used to develop tomorrow’s autonomous vehicles.

Virginia is the Digital Dominion, he declared. But before students in Southside Virginia can avail themselves of opportunities with these agencies or companies, they must be trained.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols said Mecklenburg County — because of the fiber infrastructure that runs through it, and Microsoft and HP — is uniquely situated for economic development opportunities tied to computer science. It is of critical importance to the students of this county that their arsenal of tools includes training in coding and computer science.

Partnering with CodeVA here in Mecklenburg is Microsoft. Speaking on behalf of the company, Allyson Knox said students looking for jobs in manufacturing, health care, information systems, and banking, will in the future need understand and be able to use computers.

Local Microsoft employees are already partnering with the school division through the TEALS program, an initiative to bring advanced computer science programs into the schools being taught by Microsoft employees and other mentors. Through CodeVA they will be able to expand the number of students that will have access to computer science programs.

Knox, the director of education policy and programs at Microsoft, spoke to the young girls in the room, encouraging them to pursue their interest in computer science. “The only reason I’m working at Microsoft today is because I had a computer science teacher in science who looked at me and said, ‘this isn’t that hard.’”

She said the teacher was right and that is why today Knox said she works for Microsoft. She said Microsoft, which currently employs 127 people locally, is happy to make those opportunities available to anyone with the necessary skills.

In 2016, Virginia became the first state in the nation to pass sweeping computer science education reforms which require every Virginia child to receive access to essential computer science literacy, including coding, from kindergarten through graduation.

Since 2014, CodeVA has trained nearly 1,800 Virginia teachers yet fewer than three dozen of those trained teachers are located in the Tobacco Commission’s service region in southside and southwest Virginia, according to Dovi.

CodeVA, in partnership with the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville and local community colleges, will use the Tobacco Commission grant to hire a resource coordinator to provide up to 100 hours of computer science training to teachers over a two-year period.

“Students all across our Commonwealth should have the tools they need to join a high-skilled workforce in a global, digital economy,” Sen. Warner said. “A shortage of workers in STEM fields threatens our nation’s productivity and competitive standing as an innovation leader around the world.”

Currently Warner noted there are over 232,000 unfilled jobs in computer science and cyber security, 17,000 of them are in Virginia.

Warner said these jobs often come with a starting salary in excess of $80,000.

“This Tobacco Commission investment will help give teachers in rural Virginia the skills to train the next generation of engineers, scientists and cyber-specialists. It also will strengthen the talent pipeline and allow more young people to find good jobs and remain in a region where many of them were born and raised,” Warner said.

“CodeVA appreciates Sen. Warner’s longstanding support of K-12 computer science education in Virginia, a state with the highest per-capita concentration of computer science jobs in the nation,” said Dovi. “Partnerships with the Tobacco Commission and Family Code Night both help to further CodeVA’s strategic mission of ensuring access to computer science literacy for every Virginia child.

“Sen. Warner has long championed our state as the Digital Dominion, and it is wonderful to have his voice spreading the word that Virginia is for Computer Science lovers.”

Pfohl, who serves as the grants program director for the Tobacco Commission, noted that it was the farsightedness of Commission members that brought high speed internet and a fiber optic backbone to the region that attracted companies like Microsoft and HP and paved the way for CodeVA to bring its program to this area. “Code Virginia will pay exponential benefits.”

Wednesday’s event also included the launch of Virginia’s #CSforAll targeted public engagement campaign and announcement of CodeVA’s partnership with Family Code Night, a California-based nonprofit spotlighted last year during the White House’s #CSforAll launch. Family Code Night is a program similar to long-familiar elementary reading and math night programs, and uses online materials to engage parents in their kids’ computer science learning.

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