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New era, new language: Students solve problems with coding

By Nicole Krueger
October 3, 2017
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Teach a student to use computer and you prepare her to function in a digital world. Teach her to program one and you prepare her to solve the world’s problems.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that understanding the language of computers is a skill all adults will need to thrive in a technology-driven future. Yet for decades, the inner workings of computers remained a mystery to all but a handful of techno wizards whose seemingly magical ability to command these powerful machines made them indispensible to the rest of society – much like the scribes who once guarded the secrets of reading and writing.

But the stereotype of the techno-wizard-slash-computer-genius is about to vanish in a puff of smoke. A second enlightenment is dawning. Nine in 10 parents want computer science classes available in their local schools, while employers from a wide range of industries are begging for a workforce armed with computational thinking skills.

We’re on the cusp of a new era in which every child will learn the language of computers right alongside the three Rs.

“I think computer science is the first subject area in the STEM space that has fully broken through with parents as something they think every kid should have,” says Kumar Garg, who served as assistant director for learning and innovation in the White House Offie of Science and Technology Policy under President Obama.

“Parents are treating it as a fundamental competency. They sense that familiarity with the underlying language of technology, which is taking over all fields, is going to be important to their child’s future no matter what they expect to become.”

The hunger for computer science education came on quickly and furiously, leaving leaders at every level scrambling to meet the demand. Back in 2010, fewer than 20,000 U.S. high school students took the computer science Advanced Placement course. This year, more than 100,000 took it – a five-fold increase in just seven years.

Globally, computer science education appears to have reached a critical mass. In just the past few years, more than a dozen countries have adopted plans to teach computer science to all students. This year alone, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Romania and Malaysia have joined countries such as Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom at the computer science table.

“It’s not often that we have a new subject area, especially at the K-12 level, grow so rapidly in public consciousness,” Garg says. “It’s a huge swing that’s happening, and it raises a lot of important policy questions. How do we design an education system to meet this moment?”

Making CS universal

In the United States, where most decisions about education remain in the hands of the states, bringing computer science to every student is a bit more complicated than in many smaller countries. Over the past four years, more than 20 states have passed legislation allowing computer science classes to count toward graduation, while just a few have adopted ambitious plans to teach the subject at every grade level.

“It’s hard to change education from the top down,” says Hadi Partovi, co-founder of the education nonprofit, which offers free professional learning for teachers. “Schools don’t like being told how to run. But teachers resoundingly support the idea that schools should be teaching computer science. This is really a grass-roots movement that’s now winning top-down support, rather than other way around.”

At the moment, much of the nation’s computer science education is happening piecemeal, in after-school clubs and programs or in isolated AP classes and one-off lessons tucked into other subject areas. More than 100 million students worldwide have gotten an introduction to computer science through the Hour of Code, an annual event that encourages teachers to spend an hour of classroom time teaching kids to code.

But an hour a year isn’t enough to teach crucial skills like computational thinking.

“The learning needs to be scaffolded and built over time, so when students get to high school and have the ability to make educated and informed decision about whether want to take further classes,” says Ruthe Farmer, an equity and inclusion advocate for the CSforAll Consortium, which works to achieve computer science literacy for all students.

“Right now, we just don’t have that progression, and that’s where need to get. Otherwise it’s never going to be equitable.”

Closing the equity gap

For some, teaching computer science to all U.S. students is a matter of national security, a way to remain competitive with other countries that are implementing CS-for-all policies. Others see it as a civil rights issue. Students in schools that don’t offer computer science classes – often in low-income areas with large minority populations – are getting shut out of some of the most lucrative, fastest-growing careers the future has to offer.

“It’s really important to continue to focus on equity,” Garg says. “Even as the computer science AP exam has continued to grow in size, we have not erased the equity gaps. We have a huge gulf, and if all we do is increase computer science access without focusing on the equity piece, we’ll just increase the inequity on a larger scale.”

Many educators say it’s not enough to offer computer science as an elective in high school. Students who are underrepresented in STEM fields are unlikely to take an AP computer science class if they haven’t had any exposure to it previously. Some get informally tracked out by well-meaning teachers or counselors who are unaware of their own biases. Others are intimidated by lingering stereotypes that girls aren’t good at computers or that computer science is just for geniuses.

Schools need to start earlier if they want to reach more girls and minority students, says Talia Milgrom-Elcott, co-founder of 100Kin10, a national network dedicated to adding 100,000 STEM teachers to U.S. classrooms by 2021.

“All evidence points to the fact that if students don’t have an ‘aha moment’ by third grade, they’re unlikely to go on to major or work in a STEM field,” she says. “They need to be thinking about it at the earliest ages. So much of their foundational knowledge is related to what happens in third, fourth and fifth grade, and that foundation is what allows them to go on and do more advanced math and science.

Building a teacher pipeline

To bring computer science education to every student, schools need enough teachers who are qualified to teach it. And that, most education leaders agree, is hands down the biggest barrier to universal computer science education.

“Most states have a shortage of computer science teachers,” Partovi says. “Most teachers are not learning enough computer science in school. We need existing teachers who are currently teaching in classrooms to attend enough professional development workshops so they can begin teaching it.”

At the federal level, the National Science Foundation has pledged $120 million to help train computer science teachers. Around 5,000 high school teachers have received training so far, but with more than 34,000 high schools nationwide, there’s still a long way to go.

“It’s a big space out there to try and train enough teachers for,” says Janice Cuny, program director for computing education for the National Science Foundation. “We’re still way short on teachers, and they turn over fast. It’s a continuous problem, and one school districts are not set up to handle right now.”

She estimates U.S. schools will need around 50,000 computer science teachers to fill the gap – and that’s just at the high school level. Bringing computer science into K-8 classrooms, which comprise well over a million teachers, will require additional training for a significant chunk of the nation’s educators.

The good news is that a variety of nonprofit organizations such as have popped up to provide professional learning for teachers who want to bring computer science to their schools. Much of the training is even available for free, which eliminates some of the budget concerns that keep district administrators up at night. But while professional learning can help prepare the current teaching force to meet the urgent need for more bodies teaching computer science, it’s not a long-term solution.

“The solution is to ensure the pipeline of new teachers coming out of universities are prepared,” Partovi says. “Math teachers should be able to teach computer science without needing additional training. Schools of education that are preparing teachers for the future need to teach computer science to those teachers – not to make them software developers in Silicon Valley, but enough so they can teach it to eighth graders.”

Leading with vision

Schools of education don’t turn on a dime, however. Many are reluctant to add computer science to their curriculum until they’re certain there’s enough demand to make it worthwhile. Others agree it’s important, but are waiting for their states to set the bar for certification.

States that want to advance computer science education can start by initiating a multi-year plan that defines statewide learning standards, establishes a certification or licensure process for computer science teachers, and develops partnerships with universities and other organizations to create robust teacher training programs.

It doesn’t need to be a top-down approach, either. Last year, under the leadership of Chief Innovation Officer Richard Culatta, Rhode Island set an ambitious goal to bring computer science to every school in the state. By the end of the school year, 80 percent of schools had adopted some form of computer science education, and the state is on track to reach its goal by the end of the calendar year – all without any legislative mandate. Culatta became ISTE’s CEO in May.

“This is the type of change that can be led by leaders with vision who can operationalize it and make it happen,” says Steve Osborne, chief of innovation for the Rhode Island Department of Education. “It’s something that can be done by leaders at any level, whether they’re a teacher in a classroom or a department chair in a school, a principal, a superintendent or a state commissioner of education.”

At the local level, schools and districts need to build up the infrastructure needed to support teachers once they’re trained in computer science. That means offering quality instructional materials, fitting computer science courses into the master schedule and providing for ongoing professional learning.

“The entire school community needs to think very strategically about the long game of getting to CS for all,” Farmer says.

Getting disciplined

Many leaders believe it’s important for schools to approach computer science as its own discipline, with lessons that build upon each other as students progress through the grade levels, rather than focusing on teaching certain skill sets or specific tools.

“The technologies are actually irrelevant,” Farmer says. “It’s really about computational thinking. I think it’s important we treat this as a discipline, just like any other. Chemistry isn’t about beakers and Bunsen burners, and biology isn’t about skeletons. Technology gets disrupted all the time, but the foundations of computational thinking don’t.”

That’s not to say computer science shouldn’t be integrated into other learning areas. In fact, just about every discipline connects back to technology at some point, and many educators are advocating for a fully integrated curriculum across all subjects. But until then, computer science needs an equal place at the table alongside reading, math and other fundamental skills, says Jason Zagami, associate lecturer and coordinator of community partnerships for the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.

If it doesn’t have an identity as discipline, people can easily argue there shouldn’t be a particular subject area because it can be addressed in all subject areas,” he says. “While some subjects remain discipline-based, computer science education needs to be discipline-based as well to have a standing in the curriculum.”

As the universal computer science education gains momentum and more states enact CS-for-all legislation, it’s also important to incorporate explicit strategies for inclusion into any plan.

“What we can’t afford as a society is to build a computer science program that’s cheap and ugly and end up with a whole lot more of the same exclusionary programs we’ve had for last 30 years,” Farmer says. “Systems are pretty sticky. If we build it wrong, it’s wrong for decades or even generations. We need to do this right.”

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Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter. She writes about education technology and the transformation of learning.