Google’s Jennifer Vaden Barth opens a whole new digital world to Playa Vista Elementary students
By Stephanie Case
In 2000, Jennifer Vaden Barth was a traveling stage actress who could perform rock operas in roller skates and belt Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” songbook in perfect German.
For a year and a half, she crisscrossed America with the touring cast of “Ragtime,” splitting her days between stage wings and hotel rooms.
Once, after a performance in Portland, Barth found a copy of USA Today on her hotel dresser.
“The cover story was about Google,” she says, “this new company by two kids out of Stanford, and how they were turning the tech world on its ear.”
She kept the article in her suitcase for three weeks, pulling it out in her spare time to linger over its words.
“If I ever leave acting,” she thought to herself, “I want to work for a company like this.”
Sixteen years and one bold career change later, Barth commands a different stage: a computer lab.
Her audience: 30 Playa Vista elementary schoolers wearing headphones, their eyes glued to the lines of code on their desktop screens.
As an education program manager at Google, Barth brings free computer science clubs to local schools, fostering the Westside’s newest generation of budding tech whizzes.
In the Playa Vista Elementary School computer lab, kids as young as seven let their imaginations run rampant. Using CS First, a beginners’ coding program designed by Google engineers, they learn to animate colorful computerized scenes: dinosaurs running around a racetrack, pigs dancing, heroes fighting crime — even pixelated tacos raining from the sky.
When it’s time to share their work, eager hands shoot in the air.
“The energy and the excitement is there,” Barth says. “We want them to have that joy and freedom to just create.”
Since Google debuted CS First in 2014, some 340,000 students across the world — and roughly 40,000 in Los Angeles County —have gotten a jumpstart into the world of coding.
Last spring, Barth introduced the club to Playa Vista, her family’s home base. Since then it’s caught on like wildfire, with full classrooms, waiting lists and dozens of parent volunteers.
If musical theater was Barth’s first love, giving kids the opportunity to explore technology is her second.
“It’s amazing to me,” she gushes. “Sometimes they just want to create fun videos, but there are kids who think, ‘I want to impact the community [through coding]. I want to change the world.’”
Some want to make their mark in music, using CS First to program songs and orchestrate music videos.
Others have a taste for fashion, designing digital patterns and cartoon runway shows.
Barth’s eight-year-old son Jackson, a CS First club veteran, wants to take the gaming industry by storm.
“His idea of a perfect world is to work [as a software engineer] for Minecraft,” she says.
Jackson and his young classmates are undoubtedly the digital generation: they live and breathe apps, use tablets and watch more YouTube than television.
While her son is rapidly picking up computer science, Barth never learned to code herself. As a teen, she had an affinity for calculus and physics but dropped it to pursue a degree in musical theatre, figuring the stage would better sate her artistic bug.
“As a girl, when I thought about ‘inventor’ or ‘engineer,’ I thought space and Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. I wasn’t really thinking that there would be something like Pixar one day.
“When I’d see a black screen with green ones and zeros, I’d say, ‘That’s boring.’ But if I’d known there’s this artistry, this beauty behind it …” she mused.
In computer science, just like in theater, creativity is boundless.
“So many beautiful things are possible,” Barth says. “Who knows what these kids could be inspired to create for the world.”
At Playa Vista Elementary, students can take on the world of code with Barth as their motivator. But outside of the lab, she has one personal goal: learning how to code for herself.
Barth often rises before the sun, pours herself a cup of coffee, then tries her hand at CS First.
“It keeps me humble,” she admits with a laugh. “But if you’re curious, there are always ways to learn.”