Art by Daiana Feuer

Technology

Photo by Art by Daiana Feuer

Going Viral: The Campaign For Schools To Teach Code


Ninety percent of American schools don’t teach computer science. And Lesley Chilcott, producer of Waiting For Superman, is doing something about it.



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Filmmaker Lesley Chilcott is in her new home in Venice, CA, just giddy with the numbers for her latest short film.

“We put it up on Code.org and on YouTube and you know, I was hoping we’d get like a million views,” she says. “But 8.4 million people have seen the film. In 72 hours!”

It’s a great film, no doubt, with a popular message – a snappy, persuasive argument for American schools to teach computer code. But you need more than that to go viral these days. You need a proper marketing strategy, and yet all Chilcott did was what any filmmaker would do – she asked her cast to spread the word through their networks.

Luckily, Chilcott’s cast includes Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey (founder of Twitter), Drew Houston (founder of Dropbox), Will.i.am and Chris Bosh of the Miami Heat.

“So far, we’ve had 15,964 software engineers from around the country sign up to the site to volunteer to teach,” she says. “And 5,821 schools have emailed that they want to have computer classes. This movement has only just begun.”

[Note: barely three days after that, the numbers have climbed significantly. Over 8000 schools, and 20,000+ engineers.]

It’s not the first time Chilcott has been taken aback by the reaction to her work. A native Angeleno and longtime producer, she went from making live television events for MTV, to producing a slew of extraordinary documentaries with director Davis Guggenheim. And no film was more surprising, in terms of audience response, than their first endeavor, the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth. “We took it to Sundance, and none of us could believe the reception we got. I mean seriously – this was a documentary, starring Al Gore, featuring a slideshow and the topic was global warming!”

She and Guggenheim went onto make a rock documentary (It Might Get Loud), a searing indictment of the public education system (Waiting For Superman), and President Obama’s ten minute film that was shown at the Democratic Convention in 2008.

So it’s no wonder she got the call from the founders of Code.org, Hadi and Ali Partovi, who are movers and shakers in the tech world in their own right, having been part of the original Internet Explorer team.

“They sit on all these advisory boards today where they keep hearing ‘we can’t find enough coders,’” says Chilcott. “And if you look at the stats, it’s true. There are 1.4 million jobs in computer programming over the next 10 years in America. But only 400,000 graduates will be qualified. And 90% of schools in America don’t even have a computer science class. That’s what we’re trying to change.”

Was it hard getting access to billionaires like Zuckerberg and Gates?

I had met Zuckerberg and interviewed Bill Gates before for Waiting For Superman. But this time, with Zuckerberg for example, he was particularly generous with his time – he gave me 30 minutes. And I interviewed him right outside where he works – he just sits in a room with everyone else. All of these guys, they don’t have executive or special offices.

It looks like you visited all the amazing offices in Silicon Valley.

There’s such a deficit of good coders that these companies all compete to have the best office. Free food, dry cleaning, laundry, gyms. Facebook has a bike mechanic in the quad area. They have an artist in residence. And Dropbox offers access to this company that will do 4hrs of favors for each employee per month – so if you don’t have time to take your car in for servicing or whatever, they do that for you.

Which one was your favorite?

I’m not trying to be diplomatic, but I’d be hard pressed to pick a winner. But Twitter had the largest lunch area and the nicest patio.

What’s the overriding message these business leaders want to get across about coding?

That you don’t have to be a genius. They really want to people to know that. So my job was to break down those myths – that you have to be a genius and that coding is this solitary activity, that only male geeks do.

Did you see a lot of women out there?

I did! There are a lot more female coders than you think. I interviewed Ruchi Sanghvi, Facebook’s first female engineer, who’s now the VP at Dropbox. And also Elena Silenok, of Clothia, who works in security, doing coding on Wall Street. She’s a tall beautiful blonde with blue eyes – not someone you’d typically associate with coding.

You’d think women would gravitate to coding – it’s such a merit-based activity.

Women tend to be extremely logical thinkers, and very organized – and that’s what coding is about. It’s more about problem solving which women are very good at.

That statistic is kind of shocking – that 90% of schools don’t teach computer science.

I know. Out of 40,000 high schools, only 4,000 have computer science classes. But on code.org, we’re setting up the largest database of coding classes in the country – so if you’re looking for a class in your area…

This isn’t the first time you’ve made a film about the education system. And yet you don’t have kids?

I don’t. And it surprises people. Some of the parents from Waiting For Superman told me, “you don’t have kids, why do you care?” Well, children are our future, so how can you not care? And school is the one thing we all did once, so you have this shared experience. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t know that one teacher who reached them in a way that others didn’t.

If you could change one thing about public education.

It would be that we value and pay our teachers more. In any company, generally, if you’re really good at your job, you’re rewarded. We need that for teachers.

Did you see tangible real world change as a result of Waiting For Superman?

Quite a few things came out of it. The rubber rooms we featured in New York were closed. And a number of new teaching contracts have been signed nationwide, where they’re taking another look at tenure – where it shouldn’t necessarily be automatic. I should be clear, I’m in favor of some sort of tenure, and also I’m in favor of unions – I’m in a union – but that doesn’t mean they are these monoliths that you can’t ask questions about…

With climate change, we seem to have gone backwards since An Inconvenient Truth.

You’re right. There’s definitely been some backsliding. On the other hand, the cat is out of the bag. Big corporations have sustainability vice presidents. A lot of companies even design their machinery differently, so they don’t use as much materials. And Walmart has reduced its packaging requirements. That has a huge impact. So while it’s still treacherous waters in politics, people’s behaviors have changed.

Are you likely to work with Davis Guggenheim again?

We’re great friends, I would love to work with him again. But I’ve got the directing bug now. On Waiting For Superman, we had to be so many places all over the country, we ended up working apart, and I got a 2nd unit director credit – that’s where it started. So now, I just need to direct a feature documentary to get it out of my system.

What have you got planned?

There’s one I’m developing right now about privacy issues, online behavioral tracking, data mining, GPS stalking… I’m very pro technology, but a lot of the issues just haven’t been thought through. It’s going to scare you into the theater to see it.

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