Can We Fix Computer Science Education in America?

The tech industry is one of the few bright spots in a dim economy. So why aren't we teaching kids the skills they need to participate in it?

  • Share
  • Read Later
John Landa / Exploring Computer Science

Students at Gardena High School in Gardena, CA work on a robot in their Exploring Computer Science class.

Anthony Pagan has been teaching its curriculum for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School in South Central Los Angeles, a school with a student body that’s 90% Latino. When he first arrived, the school offered only one computer course which taught typing and how to use Microsoft Office.

“The word of mouth spread after the first year I taught the course and during the second year I was teaching four sections of Exploring Computer Science,” says Pagan. “It proves that, in the end, all that hard work is worth it. These kids can do it, whether or not English is their first language.”

The course ditches Java for a visual drag-and-drop language developed by MIT called Scratch, which introduces students to programming concepts with what Pagan likens to “virtual LEGOs.”

Speaking of LEGOs, students get to build robots they program themselves. They also create computer games and learn how to organize huge data sets they create with donated smartphones.

Other teachers have had similar success, like Elaine Blomeyer at South Gate High School, located southeast of Los Angeles. Blomeyer left teaching to code for companies like Hughes Aircraft for 25 years before returning to the classroom four years ago.

“The one thing I love about teaching computer science as opposed to math, which is what I taught before, is that students typically want to learn this,” says Blomeyer. “They get immediate feedback. They get excited. They put together some HTML and, voila, they can instantly look at a web page.”

In a field as quickly moving as technology, Blomeyer stresses the importance of building communities of teachers, either through physical meetings or online. She personally puts her lesson plans on her website so that other teachers from across the country can access them.

Still, once students take Exploring Computer Science, they still need something to advance toward afterwards. That’s why educators are looking to provide an alternative to the current, Java-heavy AP computer science course with Computer Science: Principles, which, aside from programming, also focuses on algorithm design, big data and social implications of technology.

While pilot courses are currently being taught around the country, they can’t become official AP courses until the tests are created and approved. Still, with programs like Exploring Computer Science, this represents a move to create computer science classes that might  actually excite students who don’t have a lot of previous experience with computers.

Right now Exploring Computer Science is being taught to 2,000 students in Southern California. The new AP course is being piloted at 10 high schools across the country.

If educators want to scale up their cause, they’re going to need to create a national framework. That’s where the Computer Science Education Act comes in. The bill, introduced by Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colorado), looks to take a page from the Israeli playbook and create clearly defined computer science education standards. It aims to give grants to states to update their computer science programs and to establish a national commission to evaluate those programs as well.

Why It Matters

The myth of the brilliant, self-taught tech entrepreneur has a strong hold on the American imagination. When people think of Mark Zuckerberg, they often think of the heady entrepreneur who dropped out of Harvard to start Facebook.

They don’t think about the fact that his parents hired him a private tutor to encourage his love of computers as a child and that he graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, an exclusive prep school in New Hampshire that boasts such alumni as George Plimpton and Franklin Pierce, the 14th president of the United States.

Not every kid has those advantages.

“There is this assumption that if you have this innate talent and you’re drawn to it, you’ll learn it on your own and you don’t really need it at school,” says Jane Margolis, senior researcher at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and author of Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing. “Kids that have a lot of resources at home, often with parents with a lot of technical know-how and access to software, people look at them and say ‘Oh, they just take to it.'”

In 2010, the San Jose Mercury News reported that the percentage of computer workers in Silicon Valley that were black or Latino stood at 1.5% and 4.7%, respectively. Girls Who Code, an organization that encourages teen girls to pursue opportunities in technology, points out that only 14% of undergraduate computer science degrees are earned by women.

While a new computer lab or tablets are certainly welcome in low-income schools, they don’t guarantee that students will be able to fully utilize them.

“What often happens is that we spend a lot of effort trying to get technology into schools, but that isn’t coupled with ensuring that there is a really strong computer science curriculum behind it with really good teachers,” says Wilson of Computing in the Core.

Professionals in Silicon Valley like to talk about technology being disruptive, replacing old, outdated models with creativity and hard work instead of access to traditional centers of power. Yet from a demographic standpoint, the tech industry doesn’t look that different from the older industries it’s trying to disrupt.

“Unless you are going to have this knowledge be only accessible to a very narrow strata — which is mostly white and Asian males from comfortable backgrounds — it’s going to have to be part of our education system,” says Margolis. “We feel that having it in the schools and having a strong program is important if you’re going to democratize computer science knowledge.”

MORE: ‘Girls Who Code’ Looks to Close the Tech Gender Gap

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. Next