Montana Tech Leaders Look to Expand Computer Science Opportunities in K-12 Education

Forty business leaders  gathered on the top floor of the Exploration Works Museum in Helena hosted by SoFi on October 23 to discuss K-12 computer science education in Montana. Photos by Jason O’Neil Photo.

By Noah Hill

Job growth in areas involving computer science is expected to increase by nearly 40 percent over the next five years, according to Ken Fichtler, Chief Business Development Officer at the Montana Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Fichtler spoke on behalf of Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who has also said that all students in the K-12 system need a background in computer science.

According to the factsheet for Montana, 90 percent of parents want their kids to study computer science in high school compared to just 35 percent of high schools that offer courses in the field. Moreover, half the jobs in the Montana High Tech jobs portal at any given time are in programming. Despite the massive demand, only two high schools in Montana taught Advanced Placement computer science in 2017, and there are a lot of barriers to implementing a statewide computer science curriculum.

Business executives and leaders in government and education from around the state gathered to discuss opportunities to better integrate  computer science in K-12 education at a Montana High Tech Business Alliance CEO Roundtable hosted by SoFi at the Exploration Works Museum in Helena on October 23.

Representatives from the computer science departments at four of Montana’s universities and colleges, Rob Irizarry, co-founder of the nonprofit CodeMontana, as well as Allyson Knox, Senior Director of Education Policy and Programs for Microsoft, joined Ken Fichtler at the roundtable to speak about how local businesses can mobilize to advocate for statewide computer science education.


Businesses Can Influence State Computer Science Curriculum, Education Policy

Computer science training starts with school curriculum requirements developed at the state level, but Montana’s current requirements don’t encourage students to pursue that path. Fichtler said the Montana is one of only 10 states in which AP Computer Science classes don’t count toward graduation requirements.

“That’s something that I found really shocking,” Fichtler said. “It’s no wonder, really, that we’re not seeing as much demand for classes as we should be.”

John Paxton, professor and Director of the Gianforte School of Computing at Montana State University, has found misconceptions about the field also steer students away from taking CS classes. He said that some high school students enter college with a flawed perception of what “computer science” means.

“If they are thinking that computer science is using Microsoft Word or surfing the internet to find knowledge, they’re probably not going to be super inspired to even consider the computer science major,” Paxton said.

To alleviate these misconceptions, Paxton, along with faculty from the University of Montana and Montana Tech, have developed a high school dual enrollment computer science course called the Joy and Beauty of Computing, which has been a popular elective in high schools where the class is offered including schools in Missoula, Bozeman and Butte.

Over the last two years, Montana’s Office of Public Instruction has been developing new statewide computer science curriculum standards. The process is one that seeks input from numerous stakeholders, including employers throughout the state.

Ken Fichtler, Chief Business Development Officer at the Montana Governor’s Office of Economic Development, encouraged businesses to make comments on new statewide computer science curriculum standards, which can help policymakers tailor the development of computer science education to best meet the needs of employers.

Fichtler encouraged businesses to make comments on the standards, which can help policymakers tailor the development of computer science education to best meet the needs of employers.

“There is a lot of private industry represented here today, so we need to know if these guidelines are adequate,” said Fichtler.

Allyson Knox, Senior Director of Education Policy and Programs for Microsoft, said changing policy is the key to improving computer science education and, ultimately, bolstering the workforce.

“This collective could put forward some clear policies that will move forward and start to turn the dial,” Knox said.


Teaching Teachers

Another major issue facing K-12 computer science education is a lack of instructors qualified to teach computer science.

“Many teachers have backgrounds in math or English or things other than computer science,” said Yolanda Reimer, professor of computer science at the University of Montana. “Many of them don’t feel comfortable teaching computer science.”

To fix the bottleneck, Reimer, along with Jeff Brown, computer science faculty at Montana Tech, applied for a $1 million National Science Foundation grant. That grant has allowed them to create a week-long professional development workshop for educators who are interested in teaching computer science. Since its inception, the program has graduated 62 new teachers who are now certified to teach the Joy and Beauty of Computing course.

Educating teachers, however, goes only so far if schools cannot retain them. Often, teachers who learn computer science find their new skills open up high-paying job opportunities in the private sector.

“There is a pretty substantial pay gap that you get between teaching computer science and practicing computer science,” said Fichtler. “I’d love to find an interesting path forward to help rectify that gap.”


Starting Young

As with any subject, interest in computer science can be nurtured from a young age. Even early perceptions of a field of study can have a dramatic effect on the career path a child will eventually choose. Increasing the number of students studying computer science, and broadening participation to include a more diverse population, is essential to meeting future workforce needs.

Paxton pointed to a study designed to identify stereotypes students have about certain subjects.

“Elementary students do think that scientists are old, middle-aged men with frizzy hair and lab coats,” Paxton said. “If you asked them about computer scientists instead, you’d see something similar in that respect.”

Colet Bartow, Content Standards and Instruction Division Administrator at the Montana Office of Public instruction, also pointed out the importance of exposing young students to computer science education.

“We need to address this issue at younger ages, when computer science will stick,” said Bartow. “If we make up this band-aid solution in high school focused just on high school, we are really missing the opportunity to teach a generation of students who will be prepared and interested in [technology].”

Allyson Knox, Senior Director of Education Policy and Programs for Microsoft, spoke about how businesses can influence the development of computer science curriculum and how that can improve the workforce pipeline.

Natalia Kolnik, director of education at the Bozeman Children’s Museum, thinks one of the best ways to keep kids interested in technology from a young age and beyond is through volunteer interaction.

“We’ve seen kids become interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) when a volunteer from a local company comes in and volunteers at one of our open labs,” said Kolnik. “The parents of 12-and 13-year-olds contacted me and said, ‘My kids want to study lasers,’ because they heard about that industry in our program.”


Bridging the Tech Divide

Although the Montana High Tech Business Alliance boasts more than 365 member companies across the state, tech companies are most highly concentrated in Bozeman and Missoula, which means that other more rural communities can sometimes get left out of the conversation.

Grant Kier, the Director of the Missoula Economic Partnership, reinforced the importance of garnering support from rural legislators.

“We need to break down that barrier in the tech world,” Kier said. “We need to show how tech can enhance the lives of rural communities so that rural legislators will stand up for this as well.”

Rob Irizarry, Director of Customer Care Optimization at Oracle, has taken on a variety of roles in an effort to expand accessibility to tech education. CodeMontana, a program he helped found in 2013, now provides free college credit in computer science to students across the state.

Irizarry has also been involved with programs at the Bozeman Children’s Museum, trying to bridge another gap – the gender gap – in the tech world. He has helped establish several different initiatives that target young women who may be interested in tech, including one where girls were able to design their own jewelry.

“We used a printed circuit board software to design earrings,” said Irizarry “It was a thing where we brought young ladies in – I actually wasn’t allowed to go because I’m not a lady… but they created a safe space for the women to go and experiment and learn.”

Other institutions in Montana, including Carroll College, have also started working towards shrinking gender disparities in the tech ecosystem. Carroll College hosts the National Center for Women and Information Technology Competition.

Shaun Scott, a computer science professor at Carroll, thinks that the competition helps incentivize the tech industry for women.

“It’s contest that young high school age ladies can go ahead and log on to online,” said Scott. “Basically, they apply for a scholarship around their aspirations in computing.”


Advocating for Change

Although computer science has been thought of as a highly specialized field, the proliferation of technology around the globe is making it useful for nearly any career. Across the board, employers are seeing a mismatch between what students need and what is being delivered.

“There is a foundational computational thinking that I really believe cuts across all industries,” said Knox. “A coding background will only propel them further in their chosen field.”

Near the end of the meeting, Alliance members resolved to move forward with increasing advocacy for tech education. In addition to reaching out to the Governor’s office and the Office of Public Instruction, Knox recommended steps like publishing op-eds in local papers in favor of tech education.

“There are lots of ways to advocate without hiring a lobbyist,” said Knox.

To this extent, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is currently seeking educators and business leaders to serve on a tech-education oriented taskforce that will advocate for K-12 tech education across the state. If you are interested in how you can help promote high tech education in your community, please fill out this interest form.

About the Author: Originally from Kalispell, Noah Hill will graduate from the University of Montana in May with a degree in microbiology and plans to attend law school. In his free time, Noah enjoys rafting, fishing, hiking, and reading a good book.

About the Publisher: Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is an nonpartisan nonprofit association of more than 350 high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information, visit or subscribe to our biweekly newsletter.

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