Two years ago, Congress passed the Digital Equity Act to promote digital equity and inclusion. Recognizing that millions of people across the United States cannot participate in the online world, it aims to ensure that everyone has access to the skills and technology needed to reap the full benefits of our digital economy.
The pandemic proved that digital connectivity is now a basic need. But when it comes to equity, opportunity, and advancement, tech-based skills are equally crucial for students leaving school and entering the workforce.
Computer-based skills are already cited by employers as the most in-demand skill. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that in the next 10 years, the available jobs for software developers will grow by five times the national average compared to all other professions combined. This is the world for which schools must prepare their students.
For disadvantaged students without access to connectivity and an appropriate device at home, school may be their only opportunity to develop the computer skills needed to benefit from the digital economy. Only 53% of public high schools in the U.S. offer courses in computer science (CS) to their students, and a mere 5% of students study CS each year. Of these students, the vast majority are white and male.
These statistics should ring alarm bells for educators and policymakers nationally as it risks baking in the disadvantage already faced by women, students with disabilities, students of color, and multilingual students entering the workforce. The median pay for tech jobs is more than double the national median pay, so increasing the diversity in this sector could significantly help to close wealth and income gaps.
For the many schools with which I’ve spoken, providing a high-quality computer science course is far from straightforward. Policy and available funding varies wildly between states, with only 27 states requiring high schools to even offer a single computer science course, much less a sensible track of CS courses. The severe shortage of qualified computer science teachers is compounded by the more lucrative career pathways available to tech professionals outside of the education sector. Without being able to attract this expertise into our schools, designing and teaching a quality computer science curriculum feels all but impossible to most schools and districts.
But while state education policies catch up with the technical revolution, there is much that schools can do to ensure all students, regardless of their background, graduate with the computational thinking and technical skills they need to compete and succeed in the digital economy.
Finding the right curricula
A range of ready-made computer science curricula exist from which schools can choose and adapt to their needs. In computer science, the key is to spark students’ curiosity with an engaging entry level that gives them immediate results, while also providing a learning pathway that maintains their interest and supports their ongoing development.
Many students take readily to block-based coding, such as Scratch in elementary school. But when it comes time to try text-based coding courses, the majority feel unprepared and even overwhelmed. When they do attempt text-based coding, too many students struggle and drop out of this highly promising career pathway. A thoughtfully scaffolded curriculum is needed to support this critical transition and to get more students pursuing computer science and computational thinking at higher levels.
Not all teachers are equally confident with technology. Until the pandemic, few had a career need to become proficient with technology. But contrary to popular belief, computer science doesn’t require teachers to have extensive prior experience.
Michelle Jacklitch, a business teacher at Wayzata High School in Minnesota, had no experience in coding or game design. But Wayzata was committed to offering students a range of quality computer science courses and eventually chose to adopt STEM Fuse’s curriculum.
“It’s ideal for schools with little expertise in computer science because it gives teachers with little or no previous knowledge an easy-to-follow, step-by-step approach to teaching,” Jacklitch says. “Having this curriculum to follow gave more confidence to our teachers, especially those who are new to teaching coding.”
Overcoming budget constraints and digital inequity
Budget constraints are a major barrier to more schools offering computer science, especially for schools that don’t receive dedicated state funding for computer science. As a result, many schools are having to fight to get the subject matter into their curricula.
Christopher Kerr, president of the Computer Science Teachers Association in Connecticut, works with schools across the state to strengthen their computer science offerings. “Maintaining software and hardware can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming,” he says. “That’s why browser-based software is brilliant for schools. If you can access a program through an internet browser, it reduces the necessity of schools upgrading or replacing their lab hardware."
Browser-based software improves accessibility for students and schools, allowing them to develop their work flexibly at school, in the library, or at home.
So long as computer science remains overwhelmingly white and male, students who don’t see themselves represented will inevitably come to believe the subject is not ‘for them.’ As a society, we are not doing enough to attract more students, particularly women, students with disabilities, students of color, and multilingual students, into computer science and its related CTE pathways.
Coding and computational thinking, more broadly, while falling under the STEM umbrella, are inherently creative. This is how Julie York frames computer science to her students at South Portland High School in Maine—as an art more than a technical science.
“I deliberately changed the narrative around computer science so that students would view it as creative, empowering, and even fun,” Julie explains. “It means I’ve been able to reach students who have previously been uninterested in or intimidated by coding.”
Today, South Portland High School has more students enrolled in computer science than ever before, with consistently higher numbers of student minority populations. Her computer science class this semester has 65% multilingual students, 52% 504/IEP students, and 40% female students. This tangible improvement in the diversity of high school students taking CS courses not only offers them a potentially brighter career outlook but can ensure that the tech-driven products created in the future will better represent and serve the diverse nature of our citizenry.
Teaching for tomorrow
When looking at how drastically technology has shaped the world in just the last few years, it’s abundantly clear that programming is now an essential future-facing skill for children. It’s a moral imperative that all children have an equal opportunity to develop it.
Students who become proficient in coding today will use it tomorrow to pursue careers in fields like fashion design, architecture, journalism, medicine, policy, and communications. It gives them more than mere technical proficiency: students become active problem solvers, adapting or re-scoping their projects in case they run into unforeseen challenges along the way. While students can be drawn in by making games, they come to learn about sequential logic, loops, variables, functions, arrays, input/output, user experience, integrating feedback from user testing, and much more.
For example, one method that has proved particularly effective at Newington High, where Kerr is a computer and information science teacher, is cross-curricular learning with computer science and other arts-based subjects. Programming and coding involve incredible artistry and creativity, yet these are not qualities that initially spring to mind for many students. Kerr therefore created the Newington Expo of Technology—a platform for students to showcase and celebrate their computer science applications—to help students engage with the wider benefits of computer science learning. As Kerr says:
“The end product was a wonderful synthesis of development methodology, soft skill development, and a celebration of student work. Students were able to bring their classroom learning to life and critically start to visualize possible future career pathways in game design and development.”
Computer science has become a core literacy. Those who possess it have the means to control the future that is created for them and for us all. The demand for CS literacy will only continue to grow, as will the financial remuneration for those who master skills in computer science. By giving children these skills today as a matter of priority, our educational system can help eliminate the inequalities of tomorrow.
Stuart Drexler, Ed.M., is CEO of mobile game developer Jago Studios, Education Lead for Construct 3, and a member of the Code.org Advocacy Coalition.
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