Technology training key to innovation

By Debra J. Richardson and Julie Flapan, Orange County Register

Have you ever seen a toddler with a smartphone swiping their little fingers across the screen as if they were born knowing exactly how to use it? Or heard a teenager’s quip: “There’s an app for that”? As these cyber-native kids mature, they will require far less instruction on how to use technology and more education that prepares them to be the creators of it.

Computers are everywhere – in our pockets, on our TV screens, in our cars, in the movies. They’re a critical piece of our infrastructure from power grids to financial markets. And all of these computers have one thing in common: they depend on software to tell them what to do.

But who is writing this software and who is creating new technologies?

Considering how fast our world is being transformed by technology, you might expect the number of students studying computer science in K-12 education today to be at an all time high. That is not the case. Fewer students are studying computer science, and fewer schools are teaching it, than a decade ago. The problem begins in our middle and high schools. Last year in Orange County, Advanced Placement Computer Science was offered at only 15 of 69 public high schools.

The picture is far worse for students underrepresented in technology – female students and students of color. Of all California AP Computer Science test takers in 2010-11, only 21 percent were female, less than 1 percent were African-American and only 8 percent were Latino – despite the fact that Latinos make up the majority of California’s public school students.

Although California’s economic foundation depends on an educated workforce in computing, our education system is not prepared to meet the demand. California will require a total of 1.1 million STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) jobs in 2018 and 49 percent will be in computing occupations. Yet from 2000-01 to 2010-11, while California high school enrollment increased 16 percent, the number of schools offering computer science courses fell 35 percent.

Computer science is increasingly foundational knowledge for the 21st century; technology companies and businesses in virtually every sector are competing for computing talent. Yet thousands of jobs are going unfilled without the right skill sets. Our schools need to do more to prepare students to meet this demand.

In California, computer science courses are treated as electives. Given academic demands, students cannot afford the time to take an elective computer science course.

One positive change would be to allow rigorous computer science courses to satisfy a high school math or science graduation requirement. To support this change, we need to train more teachers in computer science, and encourage professional development within their field.

Making this change could have considerable impact. In states where computer science courses count toward graduation requirements, courses are 50 percent larger with much higher rates of participation by underserved students than states that treat computer science as an elective.

Education and business leaders, parents and elected officials can do more to ensure that all students – including girls, low-income students and students of color – obtain the 21st century skills required to be career and college ready.

This week, Dec. 9-15, is Computer Science Education Week. Over 30,000 students in Orange County will join a national effort, participating in the Hour of Code to demystify the subject of computer science and inspiring them to learn more.

Working with students at a young age will spark their interest in computer science and coding. Our children should not just know how to swipe their fingers on an iPad and play video games – they should know how to create them. And one day, our students will be the ones to say, “I created an app for that.”

Debra J. Richardson is founding dean of the Bren School of Information and Computer Science and professor of Informatics at UC Irvine. Julie Flapan is executive director of the Alliance for California Computing Education for Students and Schools at

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