An audacious plan to build a diverse supply of skilled programmers by ensuring that computer science classes are available in every K-12 school in the United States received a tremendous boost Monday when a who's who of Silicon Valley and the tech industry announced they would back the effort with money and know-how.

Tech superstars such as Microsoft's Bill Gates, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Susan Wojcicki of Google (GOOG), Jack Dorsey of Square, Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn, investors John Doerr and Ron Conway and powerhouse companies including Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Amazon and Salesforce.com have all signed on with Code.org, a nonprofit that started just over a year ago as the dream of Iranian immigrants and tech investors Hadi and Ali Partovi.

"It's been amazing, collecting this group we've assembled," Hadi Partovi, a Seattle-based angel investor, said at a San Francisco news conference to kick off the effort. The group aims aimed to expose more kids to a rapidly growing field that is fast becoming one of the most important in the U.S. economy. "This is incredible support from the tech industry," he said.

 Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the Newseum September 18, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the Newseum September 18, 2013 in Washington, DC. ( (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images))

Code.org would not disclose how much money it had raised through its benefactors.

As a kick-start to the ambitious effort, Partovi issued a challenge for every school student to spend an hour coding during a week in December. He said he would donate enough laptops for an entire classroom to 50 participating schools. Another 50 classrooms will win a video conference call with a tech luminary, including the likes of Gates, Dorsey and Wojcicki.

The hour of coding challenge, which Partovi hopes will result in 10 million students being exposed to programming, is something of a gimmick for the much larger goal. Code.org's plan, with the help of the deep pockets and big brains it has recruited, is to train at least one teacher in every school to be a computer science instructor.

The idea is to give every student the opportunity to decide whether computer science is for him or her in the hopes of staving off a severe shortage of programmers, a worry of the tech industry for years. Hoffman, who appeared at the news conference -- which ended with a panel discussion including California State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torkalson, PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, Brad Smith of Microsoft and Maggie Johnson of Google -- said computer science education would prove valuable even for students who go into other careers.

"For one," Hoffman said, "it actually teaches problem solving and critical thinking, which is useful anywhere in terms of what you're doing in your life."

Moreover, social scientists and others have for decades pointed out the lack of diversity of those studying computer science and holding positions in the field. While women make up a majority of those attending college and have nearly reached parity in the fields of medicine, law, math and some sciences, they account for only about 18 percent of those who received computer science degrees in 2010, the latest figures available from the National Science Foundation.

The numbers for blacks and Latinos are even worse. The Computer Research Association reported that in 2011, blacks earned 3.6 percent of computer science degrees. The association reported that the number for Hispanics was 5.4 percent.

Those who have studied the issue say one factor in low participation among women and some minorities is a lack of exposure to the field early in their academic careers. Computer science becomes a closed club, the argument goes, of white and Asian boys who took to computing early through the encouragement of teachers, parents and media stories of the successes of young men in the field. By the time women, blacks and Latinos are exposed to the subject some time in college, it is often too late to embrace computer science as a major.

Though no exact figures are available, Code.org estimates that only 10 percent of the nation's high schools offer computer science classes. Smith said during the panel discussion that fewer than 3,000 of the country's 42,000 high schools are certified to offer advance placement computer science.

UCLA senior researcher Jane Margolis, who co-wrote "Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing" and who's studied the gender gap in computer science since the 1990s, says Code.org's push into schools is needed to diversify the ranks of computer scientists. Today high school computer science is largely limited to kids whose families can afford private instruction or who live in marquee school districts that offer advance placement computer science classes.

"What we're trying to do is make sure that it's not just the kids of preparatory privilege," says Margolis, who's working with the Los Angeles Unified School District on an effort to expand and diversify computer science education there. "We want to make sure that all these other kids are learning this really important knowledge."

Contact Mike Cassidy at mcassidy@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.



Donors to Code.org's computer science education effort

The list of donors to code.org reads like a who's who of the tech world:
Ballmer Family Giving
Bill Gates
Case Foundation
Jack Dorsey
Jeff Weiner
Jerry Yang
John and Ann Doerr
Keith Rabois
Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan
Max Levchin
Megan Smith
Nick and Leslie Hanauer Foundation
The NYC Foundation for Computer Science Education
Omidyar Network
Owen Van Natta
Reid Hoffman
Ron Conway
Sameer Ghandi
Sean N. Parker Foundation
Susan Wojcicki

Corporate donors include:
Amazon
Microsoft
Google
Juniper Networks Foundation Fund
Salesforce
LinkedIn
JPMorgan Chase
Allen & Co

Source: Code.org