Let’s Make K-12 Computer Science Education a Priority

Alliance Executive Director Christina Henderson, second from left, and Staff Writer Katy Spence, third from left, attended the TECNA 2018 Summer Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, to meet with other tech councils around North America. Also pictured are Doug Devlin, CEO of Zuman, and Alina Hardy, TECNA Project Coordinator.

By Christina Henderson

Staff Writer Katy Spence and I traveled to Des Moines, Iowa for the Technology Councils of North America (TECNA) Conference July 24-26. We joined about 100 other tech association leaders from across the U.S. and Canada to learn from our peers about topics like how the Iowa Caucus system works, innovative apprenticeship programs, and how to provide more value to our members.

My biggest takeaway, however, was from a panel about public policy that featured Sean Roberts, Director of State government Affairs with Code.org, discussing policies to support computer science education in K-12 schools. Code.org’s “Big Three” goals are 1) for every student in every school to have the opportunity to take computer science, 2) getting enough teachers trained to teach computer science, and 3) enacting state standards for CS.

According to Code.org, computer science drives innovation throughout the US economy and is in high demand, but remains marginalized throughout K-12 education. 90 percent of parents say they want schools to teach the subject, but only 40 percent of U.S. schools teach computer programming.

Solving tech’s diversity problem also begins in K-12. Research shows female students are 10 times more likely to major in computer science in college if they try AP Computer Science in high school. Minority students are 7 times more likely.

Increasing the number of CS graduates is essential to filling demand from Montana’s high-tech companies. According to Code.org’s Montana fact sheet, Montana has 712 open computing jobs (2.5 times the average demand rate) and those existing jobs represent a $45,835,000 opportunity in terms of annual salaries. Half the jobs in the Montana High Tech jobs portal at any given time are in programming.

The gap between available talent and industry demand is huge. Montana had just 75 computer science graduates in 2015, 11 percent of them female. And the pipeline from high schools is not keeping up with demand either. Only Montana 13 high school students took AP Computer Science in 2017. 15 percent were female, and 2 exams were taken by minority students. Just two schools in Montana offered an AP CS course last year.

13 states have adopted a policy to give all high school students access to CS courses (and of those, only 5 states give all K-12 students access to the subject). According to Roberts, states that are leading the way in state policy on K-12 CS include Arkansas, Maryland, Virginia, and Wyoming.

Code.org has begun work on this issue in Montana in collaboration with the state and companies like Microsoft. According to an article in the Billings Gazette, in mid-July, the Montana Board of Public Education approved a new subject-area license for coding that would require teachers who already hold a regular license to take 80 hours of training. A program offered by Big Sky Code Academy/Teachers Teaching Tech would allow teachers to meet the new 80-hour requirement at no cost to them or schools.

But leaders from Montana’s teacher training universities and CS professors from UM and MSU laid out a series of concerns regarding the change, including that coding is just one component of computer science and the standards would not produce teachers who are fully prepared to teach the subject.

Expanding access to computer science in Montana’s k-12 schools and increasing participation by women and underrepresented minorities is a priority for the Alliance, and we are eager to work together with stakeholders to enact effective policies in our state to address this opportunity. If you would like to join us in this effort or make us aware of programs, please email me at director@mthightech.org.

About the author: Christina Quick Henderson is executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance and adjunct professor of management and organizational behavior in the College of Business at the University of Montana.

About the publisher:Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is an association of 350 high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information visit MTHighTech.org.

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