Computer science classes in high school: why too few kids take them
It may be hard to believe in a computer-saturated culture such as ours that within a few short years, the nation will need about one million more computer programmers.
At current rates, in 2020 there will be only 400,000 computer science students in the U.S. education pipeline. But the nation will need 1.4 million computing jobs, according to projections from the Department of Labor. Where will those one million top-paying jobs go? Overseas? Foreign technology students on special technology visas? Or will the U.S. find a way to grow the number of computer scientists in time to meet the demand?
Experts say that increasing the number of computer science graduates from U.S. colleges depends on getting kids interested at a younger age. To do this, the number of K-12 schools offering computer science needs to increase, according to Roxanne Emadi, a spokesperson for code.org, a nonprofit group working to expand computer science education. K-12 schools need more trained computer science teachers, or it can't happen, she said.
“Education is a huge, slow-moving bureaucracy that takes time to change, and our education system is behind on computer science,” Emadi said. “Schools and policymakers haven’t realized how foundational computer science can be for our country going forward.”
The best data source about the number of high school students taking computer science is from the College Board, which tracks information about students who take the AP computer science test. Barbara Ericson, computer science outreach director for Georgia Tech, analyzed statistics as part of her college’s effort to grow the pipeline of computer science students, starting in 4th grade.
In 2013, about 30,000 U.S. students took the AP computer science exam, Ericson’s analysis showed. The overall pass rate was 67 percent, with Hispanic students passing at a rate of 45 percent and black students passing at a rate of 36 percent.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia had fewer than 100 students take the test. In three states, no girls took the test; in eight states, no Hispanic students took the test; in 11 states, no black students took it.
The lack of trained computer science teachers is a bugaboo that limits student opportunities, Ericson said.
“Principals send teachers to a one-week workshop and think they can teach college-level computer science,” Ericson said. “How insulting is that? Would you send someone to a one-week workshop and have them teach AP Spanish?”
Who needs code?
K-12 computer science classes teach the basics of computer coding — the various languages programmers use to make computer software work.
“Websites, mobile apps and video games are assembled entirely by lines of code. It's someone’s job to write these lines — letter-by-letter, symbol-by-symbol — and, as with any other dialect, it takes proper spelling, spacing and punctuation for them to actually make sense,” according to a mashable.com story by Eric Larson. “To learn coding, basically, is to learn a new language.”
It’s a language many consider critical for all students in today’s world. Ericson said leaders at Georgia Tech would like to see computer science classes required or expected for all high school students. National leaders from many fields, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, are pushing for more K-12 emphasis on coding, according to quotes gathered by code.org. But significant obstacles deter many students from studying computer science during high school.
Bumps on the road
Only 17 U.S. states offer graduation credit for computer science — in the others, the class counts only as an elective. In many cases, computer science is absent from course lists suggested for college entry and scholarship applications, said Ericson, who is a senior researcher at Georgia Tech in addition to directing computer outreach.
Sometimes, school administrators lack understanding about what computer science is, and why it is important, Ericson said.
“Schools think computer literacy classes are sufficient — keyboarding, and classes about using computer apps,” she said. “They think they are already doing the right thing. We need to get them to understand that that’s not computer science.”
Stereotypes about computer nerds, and the belief that coding is a pursuit for men only — mainly white men — persist, and dissuade girls and minority students from registering for computer science classes,” Ericson said.
“In my experience, a lot of teachers have the same stereotypes,” she said. “They encourage the kids they think will do well, and discourage the ones they don’t think will do well.”
Changing the culture
Digital giants who ordinarily compete with each other came together last December to promote an Hour of Code designed to get K-12 students and teachers interested in writing code. Google, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft’s Bing and Disney were among promoters of the event. More than 23 million people learned an hour’s worth of coding skills through such events, sponsored by code.org.
Emadi said 10,000 teachers have signed up for a free coding course offered at the code.org website, which also offers free, interactive courses in coding for learners of all ages. The lowest bar for removing obstacles to computer science education, though, is changing policy to allow computer science to count toward high school graduation in more states, she said.
Efforts are also underway to convince colleges and universities to accept high school computer science as a credit toward scholarships and list it as a preferred course for entrance. Code.org is partnering with school districts around the nation and funding groups to expand computer science offerings in public schools. Microsoft, Google, Amazon and J.P. Morgan are among companies stepping up to help.
Ericson, the Georgia Tech researcher, said it’s never too soon to give children a chance to learn computer science skills.
“Starting young is very important for overcoming stereotypes and confidence and identity problems,” she said.
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