Eduporium Weekly | We Need More Computer Science in K-12 Schools
Ask just about anyone about the most important skills these days and you’ll start to notice a common theme. Coding is arguably far and away the most important skill that students need to learn and the structure of today’s economy certainly supports that belief. It’s not that simply the highest-paying jobs require workers to be proficient in coding -- it’s even starting to trend towards the entire workforce needing coding skills in some form or another. Not too much is being done in K-12 schools, however, in order to ensure that students are given the opportunity to learn these skills and even fewer of them are winding up prepared for college or a career.
Why CS Education Is Becoming Increasingly Essential
We believe firmly that children will not be prepared to enter the workforce without a strong background in computer science and coding. It’s tough to provide them with the learning opportunities they need, but some steps have already been taken to increase the chances that this gets done. In 2016, then-President Obama announced the CS for All initiative, which would allott over $4 billion for expanding computer science opportunities in K-12 education, teacher training, and curriculum development. To us all, $4 billion is a lot of money and that just speaks to the vital importance of this program. Of course, this plan is not something that can be implemented without any bumps in the road. The reasons for pursuing it, however, are concrete and its potential for providing students with opportunities they probably wouldn’t get otherwise is essentially all you need to know.
It’s been estimated that there are currently over 500,000 unfilled positions in the IT fields alone. Among other things, computer science education can help produce the software engineers that are desperately needed to fill these voids. When students have the opportunity to take computer science classes, there are many benefits that come along with it, including plenty that might not be apparent but are very much present below the surface. Learning computer science helps students develop the systemic thinking skills that are vital in today’s economy when they will be constantly tasked with innovative problem solving, using precision, and logically deducing conclusions among other things. An early exposure to computer science helps with all of these things. And, as technology becomes more ubiquitous, having a deeper understanding of how it works and how it can be manipulated is borderline essential for everyone.
Students with a computer science background will be better able to understand computing works, including its capabilities and limitations. Possessing these kinds of skills is invaluable today since they can lead to more informed decision making and consider how safe information is when it’s stored online. Computer scientists are needed to maximize all sorts of industries and can even help address global issues, like poverty. When students are engaged with computer science, they start thinking in a different way, which is known as computational thinking. On a more basic level, computer science exposure should help inspire more students, especially minorities and females, to pursue it as a legitimate career option. And, that’s the biggest thing that students need to know -- that their educators and school leaders are working as hard as they can to provide them with the opportunity to get ahead.
Strengthening Computer Science Education in K-12
It’s not the easiest thing in the world to one day just decide to redesign a curriculum that’s served an entire school or district for years or decades. If you’ve followed our posts for any amount of time, however, you know that we believe that, as much of a challenge as this might be, it’s becoming one that’s necessary for educators to undertake. Their students need a different kind of education than they have needed in the past. The economies of today (and certainly of tomorrow) do not necessarily reward those who can write poetry or even solve equations (to some extent). It’s rewarding to those who can use the technology that’s available to them to create innovative, efficient, and sustainable solutions. Just like in any STEM discipline, computer science gives students the practice they need to learn how to tackle real-world problems and become familiar with the world’s fastest emerging language: coding.
Once school leaders create a computer science program for their school, it’s important to maintain and improve it as much as possible. Depending on the resources a school is able to dedicate to their CS efforts, this could mean weekly or monthly meetings to implement changes to meet observations they make during instruction. Or, if this is not feasible, these kinds of meetings could take place once during each quarter, each semester, or, if there are no other options, at the conclusion of the school year. It’s also important, however, not to jump to conclusions too quickly and look to change every little, minor detail about the program. While it may not line up with one student’s thought process, there could be something that the majority of the rest of the class sees as beneficial. In cases like this, that student could benefit from a more personalized assignment.
One way that schools can help improve their programs is by taking advantage of various partnership opportunities. Organizations, like CODE.org, for example, provide teachers with support in a number of ways to help them create the ideal coding experiences for their students. There are also tons of additional online resources, like discussion groups, where they can find advice and solutions to create top-notch computer science experiences in their classrooms. These organizations also help with professional development, which is a huge component of computer science education. Most of the educators in today’s schools did not go to school to learn how to teach computer science. The nature of modern education, however, is demanding that they learn and this is one of the best ways in which they can. So, just remember to keep things active, updated, and stay open to new ideas!
The Importance of Computer Science Education
Learning the ins and outs of computer science is crucial for today’s students because it’s crucial for today’s employers. So, for that reason, more and more schools are making a concerted effort to allow kids to experience CS education throughout their time in school -- not just one class in high school. The importance of this access cannot be understated, but in order to launch successful computer science initiatives, school leaders need to have a clear plan in place, set realistic goals, and remember why they are doing what they are doing. The single most important reason to offer computer science training is its undeniable relevance to students. Whether it’s workforce preparation or everyday challenges, today’s students are going to need to know how to use coding to their advantage. When they get to practice from say, elementary school, exposure to CS concepts also helps students develop computational thinking skills, which are increasingly valuable.
When engaged in computer science, students also get the opportunity to create in addition to solving problems. This helps them boost their creativity while they take control of their learning, which does wonders for their engagement, but also helps them to realize that they have the potential and the skills to affect real change -- whether in the classroom or on a larger scale. When schools offer coding courses, especially if they cover a larger spectrum of programming languages, this significantly helps prepare students for the next step. Since computer science is also a natural extension of robotics, schools are finding it easy and beneficial to teach kids coding skills using robotics tools that align with their ages and abilities. Robotics allows kids to start with the basics, creating programs with blocks and shapes, which make robots move before progressing up to writing programs in typed language that move them.
No matter the age of students, they’re still able to develop skills like computational thinking when engaged in any form of computer science -- either on a high-tech computer program or a simple robot paired with a device. They’re constantly debugging and reworking their approaches, which, believe us when we tell you, is a big step in the right direction. Nowadays, teachers are able to connect the experiences students gain through computer science work to the curriculum in a meaningful way. As skills requirements continue to evolve, so too will school curricula to align with what’s needed to ensure successful preparation. Specialized classes are being created that allow students to learn what it is like to control through code. They’re even designing and developing mobile apps with the needs of others in mind, recognizing the power of learning computer science and seeing the impact that it has on the world, which, really, is all we can ask.
Developing CS and STEM Skills Through Robotics
Computer science does not have to be restricted to programming and learning only on computers. Kids are still able to explore authentic coding even when they step away from the screen. Thanks to simple EdTech tools, like robotics and coding kits, computer science is now a mobile-friendly endeavor as much as it is a profitable one. Take the Ozobot for example. This compact, mobile robot is very practical for use in a STEM classroom because it is incredibly small but still very capable. Using this product, students can learn programming and computational thinking through various games, challenges, and exercises. The beauty of the Ozobot is that it can be used as a very basic way to introduce programming and as a way to advance coding skills with more intricate computer science later on.
Although most K-12 robotics tools only offer a basic representation of what it’s like to program, this is the exact foundation that students need. They’re learning that grouping certain elements together creates an overarching program that the robot can read and then execute. No matter how simple the components of that program are, they still represent the completion of a coded event. When the coding gets more complex, however, and students move on to typing code themselves, they’re still able to see robots execute the commands they’ve created. In fact, these simple, programmable robots often introduce kids to different programming languages and illustrate that computer science is not something to fear, but rather something that they can use to simplify their lives and magnify their reach.
Using robotics, students can easily get familiar with all of the nuances of computer science, like inputs, outputs, algorithms, and variables. Among the different robotics tools, each of these is worked into the learning they’re doing at one point or another. They’re just scaled down in a simpler way, but the concept remains unchanged. Perhaps most importantly, bringing robotics into introductory computer science classes can help students immediately see the programming they’ve done being acted out off of a screen. The best part is that there are so many options for teachers and students -- many of which are very affordable. There’s something for students in every single grade level and children with different sets of abilities. Just visit the Eduporium store to explore a wide selection of robotics tools for computer science!
Building a Diverse Workforce Requires CS in Schools
In the increasingly STEM-heavy tech workforce, most of it is made up of white males. In the country’s major companies, less than five percent of the workforce is African Americans and Latinos. Despite this lack of diversity, these powerful people have an overwhelming effect on our daily lives especially when it comes to technology. They impact our socioeconomic conditions and decisions and are the ones responsible for tech breakthroughs like 3D printing, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence. Each of these three industries is likely going to see massive growth over the next few years despite the lack of diversity among those who are driving them. The World Economic Forum projects that up to five million jobs could be replaced by these technologies before 2020 and only two million will be created to replace them. So, what about those other three million workers? Where will they go?
Of these two million potential new jobs, many of them figure to be created out of necessity due to what the current tech climate dictates. It seems likely that there will be more niche professions, but also plenty of need for workers in computer science, engineering, and design. This latest Industrial Revolution is happening much more quickly than others in the past and directly rewards those who have the knowledge and the skills to provide what employers need. For those who did not have the chance to participate in computer science courses throughout school, however, this dream may quickly fall out of their reach. Employers need workers who can make an impact now -- not those who require a large amount of training in order to get up to speed. If today’s students can start learning these skills early on, however, their prospects are much improved.
Many schools, unfortunately, do not or cannot offer computer science courses for their students. In fact, almost 90 percent of Title I schools have no CS plans in place. According to a report, about 98 percent of computer science majors state that they had prior experience to the field prior to college. In many schools, kids are only learning the very basics, like typing and Microsoft applications, ignoring or unable to dive into things like software engineering or app development. Since many colleges don’t actually have prerequisites for computer science, high schools around the country are getting away with not offering CS courses. They save time on the curriculum and in training teachers, but students are entering the next phase behind their peers. Is this doing anything to combat the lack of diversity in the tech industry? It will continue to be dominated by white males unless more schools are able to introduce students of all races, genders, and economic levels to computer science while they are young enough to make a difference.
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Image: © UC Berkeley EECS