From the cell phone alarm that wakes them to the tablets used to chat with friends and complete homework, today’s students are surrounded by computer technology. It is ubiquitous, and critical to daily routines. Yet few understand how this technology works, even as it becomes ever more intrinsic to how we solve business and community challenges.
Today, computer science helps retailers determine how to grow sales and helps ensure that law enforcement officers are in the right places to maintain public safety. It is the foundation for the smart grid, and it fuels personalized medicine initiatives that optimize outcomes and minimize treatment side effects. Computing algorithms help organizations in all industries solve problems in new and more effective ways.
Inseparable From the Future of Education
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2020 there will be 1.4 million new computer science jobs. However, between current professionals and university students, we will only have 400,000 computer scientists trained to fill those roles.
Since it can take as many as 25 years to create a computer scientist, and since computer science skills are becoming increasingly integral for jobs in all industries, this skills gap is on track to emerge as a formidable economic, security, and social justice challenge in the next few years. Teachers, schools, parents, and industry must act on multiple fronts to address student readiness, expand access to computer science curriculum and opportunities, and help foster interest in computer science to ensure that it becomes a core component of every child’s education.
Tackling the Challenges
Even though computer science skills are becoming increasingly important in the competitive global economy, there are some significant roadblocks that prevent schools from incorporating computer science into the curriculum and exposing more students to the subject.
Currently, very few schools make computer science available to students. According to the College Board, in 2013, only 9 percent of schools offered the AP Computer Science exam. This lack of course offerings is compounded by the fact that there is a significant lack of teachers who are qualified to engage students in computer science—those who have a deep knowledge of the topic often take jobs in industry—and a lack of student interest in taking these advanced courses, at least partly due to a misconception that computing experts are boring, male, and always in front of their computers.
Overall student engagement numbers are low even relative to other STEM fields, and female and minority students in particular are vastly underrepresented in existing computer science courses. Of the 30,000 students that took the AP Computer Science exam, less than 20 percent were female, only 3 percent were African American, and approximately 8 percent were Hispanic, according to the College Board.
These issues stunt the expansion of computer science and prevent students from gaining the basic technology literacy that will be imperative for future workers in all fields. Communities, schools, and industry must work together to integrate computer science in schools from a young age to help both encourage diversity in technology-related fields and ensure that students of all ethnicities, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds have the opportunity to learn these skills.
5 Steps for Taking Action Now
While a comprehensive, long-term plan is needed to incorporate computer science education in all schools and to ensure that students are prepared for the jobs of tomorrow, there are simple steps that teachers, schools, parents, and industry can take today to integrate computer science into classrooms and begin to overcome the above-mentioned challenges.
1. Professional development: Teachers can register for online or in-person training courses to learn how to teach a computer science curriculum or integrate basic computer science principles into existing lesson plans.
2. Career education: Parents, teachers, and schools can educate students about the career opportunities available to those who get computer science degrees. While it could mean working for technology giants like Apple and Oracle, students can also use computer science skills to advance healthcare research or help a non-profit build a case for government funding.
3. Student incentives: Teachers can offer students extra credit for using free online learning tools to develop basic computer science skills and create a project. (A good place to start is the Computer Science Teachers Association.)
4. Mentor programs: Industry and schools can formalize a mentorship program that will encourage and support students to learn more about computer science and develop their skills inside and outside the classroom via after-school programs or co-taught lessons.
5. Coding for kids: Parents can help kids develop confidence in their problem-solving abilities and explore computer science in action in their lives and communities with age-appropriate coding apps such as Scratch for younger children or MakeGamesWithUs for high school students.
Inseparable From the Future of Our Society
Students, parents, educators, and industry all have a vested interest in better integrating computer science into the K–12 experience. Our economic stability and national security depend on a population with solid computer science skills and coding literacy. The future of education must focus on making computer science an integral part of every child’s education to ensure that students of all genders and backgrounds have a chance to pursue these opportunities.