CyberPatriot is possibly the geekiest high school club in history. Sponsored by the Air Force Association, a dozen teens from the city of Bell meet after school to learn to code.
Like most of the club members, senior Erika Aguiluz aspires to become a computer scientist. Aguiluz said if it weren’t for the couple of hours she’s spent coding after school, she may not have considered the career.
“You grow up in your community: you are kind of blinded to the whole world,” said Aguiluz. “For all you know, there could be green people out there.”
Half of this group is young women and everyone is Latino – faces rarely seen in a high tech world dominated by white and Asian men.
This club is the only way students at Bell High can learn code. The school used to have a computer science course, but it was cut this year. District officials would not say why.
It exemplifies the lack of computer science education at the Los Angeles Unified School district. Only one in every 10 high schools in the district offer an AP computer science course – and all of those are in the whiter, wealthier northern and western parts of the district.
Even in those schools that offer the elective, enrollment can be low – just three Van Nuys students took Grant High’s course last semester.
Yet by the time today’s freshman graduate high school, California will have 1.1 million jobs in science, technology, engineering and math – commonly called STEM – and 49 percent of them will be in computing, according to technology advocates.
To try to meet the need, the district plans to expand an introductory course, Exploring Computer Science, from 35 to 45 of the district’s 103 high schools next year, said Todd Ullah, who oversees STEM education at L.A. Unified.
He said unlike AP computer science, teaching the introductory class does not require much special training.
“Who ever is really interested in this, whether it’s a Math, Science, English or Social Studies teacher, can teach a few classes of this with the right professional development,” Ullah said.
He said the district is also adding Data Science to its course catalog next school year. The pilot is scheduled to run at 10 schools.
Certainly computer science instruction at the district is better than it used to be.
“Especially in schools with high numbers of kids of color, what was called computer science was often just typing and keyboarding, the most basic, rudimentary skills,” said Jane Margolis, a UCLA senior education researcher who has spent over 10 years examining computer science offerings at L.A. Unified.
She has gathered course offerings, syllabuses and paid visits to the classrooms for her 2008 book Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing. She said the district’s more than $1 billion proposal to equip every student and teacher with a tablet won’t do much to close the digital divide.
“We saw some schools that were aglow with technology, that were filled with computers,” Margolis said. “We identified that these schools were technology rich but curriculum poor.”
One solution would be to allow the computer science classes to count as higher level math or science course work like the Washington state legislature did last year. Most computer science classes at L.A. Unified are electives and can’t at the moment be used to fill those requirements.
That’s a big push for the Irvine-based Alliance for California Computing Education for Students and Schools, which wants computer science to get the same credit weight as more standard math and science work, such as Algebra II.
“Computer science has become a real foundational skill in terms of critical thinking, in terms of algorithms, in terms of creativity and innovation,” said Julie Flapan, the nonprofit group’s executive director.
Ullah said long term, L.A. Unified is looking to offer a progression of computer science courses, rather than one-off electives.
One of the problems with expanding courses is a shortage of teachers. Computer science is listed by the U.S. Department of Education as a teacher shortage area for California.
Ullah said the few computer science professionals he has seen join the teaching ranks do so to address inequity – they seek to spread their knowledge to under-severed communities where the skill can be a ticket out of poverty.
“It’s just a matter of finding them,” he said.
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