Closing the computing gap where it starts

Our world relies on computers to function. The financial transactions that drive the global economy happen digitally, our transportation infrastructure is monitored and managed online, and our national security has become the world’s most ambitious data analytics project. Even interpersonal communication has moved online through social media — a truth that confounds Baby Boomers and defines Millennials.

We can debate the merits of this new world order, 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 most of the United States.

Understand this: Computing jobs make up about two-thirds of all projected new jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields, yet 75 percent of U.S. schools do not offer a computer science course. In fact, only 8 percent of all STEM graduates — the kids who should be most inclined to pursue computing careers — study computer science before college.

We’ve seen slow movement in K-12 curriculum that reflects some awareness of the increasingly computer-driven world. Most research is done online. Typing classes are extinct as kids grow up figuring keyboards out on their own. Most schools spend little or no time teaching cursive writing. These 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 as well. 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 the students the opportunity to earn college credit in that subject, 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 — a far cry 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 tied to decades of K-12 inertia.

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 with 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, and we’re seeing considerable progress. Code.org has trained or worked with an affiliate to train 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. Call on your local schools to expand computer science offerings at every grade level, and push your local school district 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 more than time; it takes initiative, hard work and the collective efforts of dedicated individuals. If you’re not sure how to make a difference, visit www.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 this year.