Our world relies on computers. Financial transactions driving the economy happen digitally, transportation infrastructure is monitored and managed online, and national security has become the world’s most ambitious data analytics project. Even interpersonal communication has moved online through social media.
We can debate the merits of this shift, but not the reality of it. Computers — from supercomputers working to solve energy challenges to smartphones used to snap selfies — are inextricably connected to everything we do. That makes it all the more confounding that computer science remains an afterthought in K-12 education across the U.S.
Computing jobs make up about two-thirds of all projected new jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields, yet 75 percent of schools don’t offer computer science courses. In fact, only 8 percent of all STEM graduates study computer science before college.
We’ve seen slow movement in K-12 curriculums, reflecting some awareness of the increasingly computer-driven world. Most research is done online. Typing classes are extinct. Few schools teach cursive writing. All are concessions to the impact and pervasiveness of computers. But teaching how computers work? Actual computer science and coding? It’s not happening, and it’s a frustrating disconnect.
This is true in Idaho, too. Only six Idaho high schools offered the AP computer science course in 2013-14 and only 58 students took the AP computer science exam. The AP exam gives students the opportunity to earn college credit, but in Idaho there are fewer AP exams taken in computer science than in any other STEM subject area.
Not surprisingly, the lack of high school programs is leading to a shortage of computer science students at the college level. Idaho produced just 277 computer science graduates in 2015 — far from the numbers needed to fill the state’s 1,368 open computing jobs. Those jobs carry an average salary of $67,327, compared to the $39,770 average for all jobs in the state. Why are they open? It starts with the missed opportunities in K-12.
We can and must do better.
Code.org is working on multiple fronts to improve computer science education at the K-12 level around the world. Perhaps most notably, the “Hour of Code” program has attracted 300 partners and engaged more than 100,000 teachers in all 196 countries around the world. In just two years, the program has helped more than 70 school districts initiate computer science classes and trained more than 15,000 teachers to teach those classes.
In Idaho, Code.org has partnered with the state through Idaho Digital Learning Academy, and we’re seeing considerable progress. More than 250 Idaho elementary, middle school and high school teachers, and about 418,000 people in the state have completed an Hour of Code. And we’re just getting started.
You can be an advocate for change. Challenge local schools to expand computer science offerings at every grade level, and push districts to allow computer science courses to satisfy core math or science requirements. Many states do not allow this, but Idaho does. Idaho also allows computer science to count as a math or science admission requirement at colleges and universities.
These allowances represent progress, but there is considerable work to be done. Idaho needs stronger standards for computer science coursework, better funding for course creation and professional development, clearer pathways to teacher certification and statewide requirements for computer science classes at the high school level.
Change takes time, initiative, hard work and the collective efforts of dedicated individuals. If you’re not sure how to make a difference, visit code.org/promote/ID to learn more about ongoing efforts in Idaho.
Hadi Partovi is CEO of Code.org. He was a keynote speaker at the Idaho Technology Council Hall of Fame and Innovation Awards.