California is failing to produce enough computer scientists

By Julie Flapan
Sacramento Bee

Fourth graders in Matthew Chan’s class are enrolled in a rigorous STEM school

Fourth graders in Matthew Chan’s class are enrolled in a rigorous STEM school – Science, technology, engineering and math – at Folsom Cordova Riverview Elementary School in Rancho Cordova, Calif. Manny Crisostomo

Coding is to computer science is what a hammer is to carpentry; it is just one important tool in the toolbox. Thanks to an audacious goal of having 100 million students try coding for one hour during Computer Science Education Week starting Monday, it’s easy to understand why coding has captured so much attention, yet computer science remains misunderstood.

Computer science is often confused with educational technology or digital learning. Computer science doesn’t only teach how to use computers or facilitate learning; it teaches students to be “creators” of technology. This distinction is important because as computers have become ubiquitous in our daily lives, young people presume they already know what it takes to operate their devices – but that’s not enough.

The discipline of computer science requires deeper learning so that students think critically and creatively, solve complex problems and develop sequential reasoning, algorithmic and computational thinking. These are the skills that students need to design applications and advance innovations that enrich society, across all fields. Computer science provides fundamental knowledge students need to be prepared for college and careers in the 21st century.

And, yet, California, home to Silicon Valley, is not adequately preparing its own students for the projected increase in jobs that will require computer science degrees. More than half of expected jobs in STEM fields will be in computing occupations. And it’s not just about preparing students to work in the tech industry; nearly every occupation will require some background in computer science, whether it be health care or entertainment, auto mechanics or agriculture.

Sadly, at the current rate, the estimated number of graduates in computing between 2010 and 2020 will meet less than one-third of the demand. Despite a 16 percent increase in high school enrollment from 2000 to 2012, the number of computer science and programming courses fell 34 percent.

When schools don’t offer computer science, affluent parents can expose their children through after-school robotics classes or summer coding camps. But opportunities are far less for students underrepresented in technology – women and minorities. Of all AP computer science test takers in 2012-13, only 22 percent were female, less than 2 percent were African-American and only 8 percent were Latino.

Computer science education must be democratized. Introductory classes should be available to all high school students, regardless of a school’s ZIP code, parents’ income or education, or even students’ demonstrated interest. If you’ve never been exposed to computer science, how do you know you’d be interested or even excel in it?

Thankfully, the Legislature and governor understand the importance of computer science. Three bills were recently signed into law with bipartisan support, setting the stage for increased access to computer science education in our public schools.

Assembly Bill 1764 creates new guidelines for a rigorous computer science course to satisfy a high school math graduation requirement. If the University of California and California State University systems agree to recognize computer science toward college admissions, as Senate Bill 1200 recommends, that could have considerable impact. With encouragement from AB 1530, California will align computer science standards with Common Core so teachers will see the relevance of integrating computer science in curriculum.

To support these changes, we need to equip more teachers to teach computer science. This includes updating teacher pre-service technology requirements, developing a supplementary authorization in computer science and providing time and resources for professional development.

This week, we applaud thousands of students who will be inspired to try coding. With endorsements from President Barack Obama and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, is helping to change the face of computing.

Let’s take the next step in California to expand computer science education and ensure underrepresented students are exposed to this essential knowledge. Then, all students will be equipped with far more than just one tool in their toolbox.

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