It's only a couple of miles from Johan Baez' home in Dorchester to Boston's Seaport District where an old Dry Dock warehouse is now home to a massive technology business incubator. The wide open space with long tables of young tech types working on laptops is like no place Baez has ever been.
"I opened the door, and it was like I was walking into this amazing world," said the 21-year-old Baez.
The language of this world is computer code and, in just two months, Baez has learned enough to build his first website. He is part of a coding bootcamp that targets young men who have struggled in school and with the law, but have the potential to develop something employers desperately need: computer programming skills.
The coding camp is the brainchild of David Delmar, a former PayPal executive.
"East of Silicon Valley, in venture capital dollars, Boston is the biggest tech city in the country," said Delmar. "But we have a serious problem with the talent pool."
East of Silicon Valley, in venture capital dollars, Boston is the biggest tech city in the country, but we have a serious problem with the talent pool.
Delmar now runs a nonprofit called "Resilient Coders". His goal is to help young people tap into the tech opportunities. There are currently more than 20-thousand computer science related job openings in Massachusetts, but not enough people have the skills to fill those jobs. Delmar says the problem is an education system that hasn't caught up with the modern economy.
"You put 12 years of effort into this model and at the end of those 12 years well you know – who knows – good luck," said Delmar. "There’s a disconnect between what’s being taught and skills sets people are employing."
Many people agree with Delmar, including the head of Google's Cambridge operation, Steven Vinter.
"Computing, computational thinking, the ability to create technology is a fundamental skill that students ought to learn throughout the k-12 education the same way they learn reading and writing," said Vinter.
He co-founded MassCAN, a coalition of technology and education leaders with an ambitious mission: to modernize public education in Massachusetts.
"To provide every student the opportunity at every grade level in MA to learn computing and that’s really our goal," explained Vinter.
In the last two years MassCAN has offered professional development training so teachers – about 600 so far – can incorporate computer science into the classroom. As with math or reading, the goal is to introduce computing concepts to kids early.
"So they’re just a natural part of the way they think," said Vinter. "If you go into a classroom in second grade and you see them playing games, you’ll see that things that 11th graders don’t fundamentally understand that second graders can do."
So (computer concepts) are just a natural part of the way they think. If you go into a classroom in second grade and you see them playing games, you'll see things that 11th graders don't fundamentally understand that second graders can do.
The plan is to start with six school districts and beef up teacher training and curriculum. MassCAN is now seeking money from foundations and private industry. The state has budgeted one and a half million dollars in matching funds.
Massachusetts Secretary of Education Jim Peyser welcomes private sector input both in shaping tech curriculum and providing volunteers in schools, but says the Commonwealth's priority is computer science education for high school students.
"Once we start providing the kinds of curriculum and courses that students need, providing more training for students, over time this does build on itself and generates it own momentum," said Peyser.
Google's Steve Vinter says much of that momentum will come from educators - at all grade levels - who are eager to incorporate the kinds of hands on learning that goes with teaching robotics, developing apps or, as he puts it, "building cool things".
"These concepts – as long as information is available – these underlying concepts are going to be there," said Vinter. "And kids need to learn them and the earlier they need to learn them, the easier it is to learn them."
Johan Baez has learned that coding is tough. But it beats the last job he had working in a big box store. As he builds his first website, he’s also - for the first time - working toward a goal.
"Before I was so lazy I don’t know what to do with my life, but then I got into this program and everything changed," said Baez. "I’ve never been more motivated in my life to do something I really wanted to do."