Business community pushes for curriculum changes

Idaho’s business community is instigating an effort to change curriculum in order to produce graduates with improved critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

It’s an industry-led effort to develop a more skilled work force.

“This is going to be a game-changer,” said Blaine Bergeson, a senior software engineer at Micron. “We think it’s significant.”

Members of the Idaho Technology Council believe computer science should be taught to all Idaho children. The council’s “CS K-12 Initiative” is about getting computer science in every classroom.

In a side benefit, more students could become interested in computer science or programming careers. The tech industry has a chronic shortage of candidates for these high-paying jobs, and the need is expected to grow in the coming years.

“I don’t think people understand the impact this is going to have — it will affect every subject students are learning,” Bergeson said. “Students will have had 12 years of developing critical thinking skills and this will have a significant impact on the quality of students going into college and those wanting to go to college. It’s going to have a huge impact.”

Idaho does not require students to take computer science classes to graduate, but some states do.

Last school year, Idaho high schools offered about seven computer science classes statewide. This fall, that number will surpass 60. Heidi Pluska, a chemistry teacher, will switch and teach computer science at Timberline High School in Boise this fall.

“There is a huge disconnect in what’s being taught and what the Idaho Technology Council wants,” Pluska said. “Computer science is a skill set that is just as essential as math or chemistry.”

Bergeson has been the driving force of this initiative. He got the idea as an adjunct professor teaching computer science at Boise State University. College students lacked basic critical thinking skills, he said, and he started a crusade to change that.

Through the ITC, Bergeson started a committee to review and discuss beefing up curriculum that focuses on critical thinking. The committee had representatives from the education and business communities.

The committee decided to focus on teaching computer science, and a free online curriculum called Code.org matched this vision, Bergeson said. Code.org is a non-profit organization dedicated to getting computer science and programming curriculum into all classrooms around the country.

“We think it is a good solution,” Bergeson said. “It doesn’t have to be the only way, but this is a good way and it’s free.”

Pluska is Idaho’s affiliate for Code.org and has trained 200 Idaho elementary teachers in implementing the curriculum.

“In addition to providing an accessible curriculum that is both fun and engaging for all learners, Code.org has successfully reached out to groups that are typically underrepresented in computer science — girls, African Americans, Hispanics,” Pluska said. “No other effort has been as successful as Code.org at reaching these groups.”

The Idaho Digital Learning Academy has agreed to be a virtual school district to work with Code.org and a communication liaison for about 30 districts interested in implementing the free curriculum.

With the combined efforts of IDLA, ITC and Pluska, Idaho has fostered more Code.org partnerships than any other state in the country.

“Everyone agrees this has to happen it’s now working through the logistics,” Bergeson said. “Training is moving forward. Now the role of the tech community is to continue to offer support and keep this going and growing into every classroom in the state.”