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Learning Library Blog MEMBER VOICES: Janice Mak says it's possible to bring CS to all students
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MEMBER VOICES: Janice Mak says it's possible to bring CS to all students

By Janice Mak
March 18, 2018
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Computing has transformed the way we do business, organize our personal information, conduct research, think about our health, socialize, listen to music, read books, heat or cool our houses – and yet it’s a subject that only one in four schools teach.

This led me to ask, “Why would I want or need to teach computer science?” And I realized that the really important thing about coding is the computational thinking behind it. As Steve Jobs once said, “Everyone should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think.”

Computer science is about empowering my students to identify a problem, analyze and decompose it, and solve it with a computational solution, using an app, a program or a robot. Our students need to learn how the internet and their smartphones work as much as they need to learn about geography or biology. We need to give them the tools to invent the very future in which they’ll live.

As I fully engaged in bringing computer science (CS) to my students, I had another realization: representation matters. As I looked at my class of 37 middle school students, I realized only three were girls. Half the population was self-selecting out of a field with some of the highest paying jobs. Not to mention, we can’t have half the population designing solutions that will impact the entire population.

This really hit home when one of the three girls enrolled in my computer science class sat in the office in tears. It turns out she was afraid of failing because she thought she was already behind the 34 boys in the class.

What could I do about it? I started a Girls Who Code club and worked with a community volunteer to raise awareness of equity issues in CS and inspire girls to make, code and create. In the classroom, I let students choose what they wanted to explore. Some were doing block-based programming while others were enrolled in online computer science courses from Stanford University. Still others were doing robotics and creating kinetic sculptures or composing music.

It was great to know that I was impacting my own students, but it wasn’t enough. In Arizona, there are nearly 10,000 open computing jobs with an average salary of over $85,000, yet only 546 computer science graduates (15 percent female). And 438 high school students in Arizona took the Advanced Placement CS exam in 2016, but only 23 percent were female; just 15 percent were underrepresented minorities. Only 31 schools in Arizona (10 percent of schools with AP programs), even offered AP CS in 2015-16.

We have a disconnect between the vision of “CS for all” and equitable CS opportu-nities for all students. “For all” means equity and access to CS for every student in every school and district, regardless of their background. It means that CS is a core literacy that is just as foundational as reading, writing and math. It also implies that we need a new approach to teaching CS because what we’ve been doing hasn’t resulted in opportunities for all. We need CS integrated into the fabric of what we teach.

An African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.” With this view, I co-founded a task force called Computer Science for Arizona (CSforAZ), a team of CS champions composed of representatives from the state department of education, state board of education, the governor’s office, higher education institutions, industry, nonprofits and K-12 districts statewide.

As a group, we set out to identify policy priorities with three main targets: CS standards development (which is already underway), preservice and inservice CS teacher education, and CS funding. In our first year, we set forth long-, medium- and short-term goals around CS teacher certification, CS standards development
and making CS count as a graduation requirement.

We share our CSforAZ vision on Twitter and sit on panels at statewide conferences to expand our sphere of influence. We’ve invited key CS organizations like the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), and Google to address students at Arizona State University last fall.

Our efforts to build momentum and buy-in for CS are working. In January, our governor announced $2.5 million in funding for CS education.

As a cohesive unit, we’re advancing CS for all in Arizona through policies, partnerships and state planning. We’re redefining CS within our state while expanding opportunity and access for every student.

Janice Mak is co-chair of CSForAZ, a affiliate, and serves on the K-12 Executive Council for NCWIT, CSTA Arizona board, Arizona State Board of Education and Arizona K12 Center board. Follow her on Twitter @jmakaz.