K-12 educators in the U.S. are struggling. Like everyone else, they know that computer technology is a well-paying, in-demand field that’s desperate for a more diverse workforce. But many have had a hard time figuring out exactly how to prepare kids for tech careers and provide them with a basic understanding of computer science. Until now, that is.
A coalition of computer science organizations — led in part by the Seattle-based nonprofit Code.org — recently released the K–12 Computer Science Framework. The document provides a roadmap for educators eager to expand beyond lessons in how to use a spreadsheet or build a PowerPoint deck.
And perhaps most importantly, the framework aims to make computer science welcoming to all students — including female, black, Hispanic and other kids who have been disproportionately absent from these classes and, ultimately, the tech industry.
“We’re at that point where districts all around the country are looking around and thinking [computer science] is huge,” said Greg Bianchi, STEM Curriculum Developer for the Bellevue School District.
But without guidance, “how does someone in a K-12 system navigate that, and make the right choices to say, ‘Here is what we want to do at K, here is what we want to do in third grade?’” said Bianchi, who’s also a project consultant for Washington STEM, an educational nonprofit.
And while the framework could better prep kids for tech careers, it’ll do more than that, supporters said.
“The reason for kids to learn computer science is not that they’ll enter the software industry workforce — although certainly some will,” said Ed Lazowska, Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, via email. “It’s that no matter what career you choose, knowledge of computer science is increasingly essential — it’s a life skill in the 21st century, not vocational training.”
But it’s an area of academics that has been dominated by white and Asian male students.
A study just released by Gallup and Google found that middle and high school girls say they are less interested in computer science and less confident that they can learn it than boys. The survey also found that black students were less likely to have a computer science class at school than white peers, and that both black and Hispanic students spend less time on computers at home.
As a result, data from the AP Computer Science exam reveals that last year, only 22 percent of the exam test takers were female and 13 percent were non-white or non-Asian students.
When it comes to inclusion in computer science education, “what we’ve done in the past hasn’t worked,” said Shannon Thissen, Computer Science Program specialist in learning and teaching for Washington’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). “We need to change what we’re doing.”
The need for a change has grown so urgent that in January, President Obama launched the Computer Science for All initiative to promote widespread instruction for all students. The idea is that computer science needs to become a fundamental part of education, joining other core subjects.
The new framework will support that effort, supporters said. And it’s been endorsed by numerous educational nonprofits, institutions and corporations including Amazon, Microsoft, Expedia and Google.
The framework isn’t a set of standards, but presents the essential concepts that students should grasp and which skills they should have at various grades. The hope is that these concepts and skills are integrated into other academics as well as being taught as stand-alone computer science.
The core concepts are: an understanding of computing systems, networks and the internet, data and analysis, algorithms and programming, and the impacts of computing. The skills or “practices,” as they’re called in the document, include creating an “inclusive computing culture,” developing and using abstractions and defining computational problems.
One of the framework’s key goals is bringing computer science to early elementary grades.
By the end of second grade, the document calls for students to understand some of the ways that computer devices share information, and have some ideas about troubleshooting and the notion that complex tasks can be solved by breaking them into smaller pieces, among other goals.
When you look at who is enrolled in computer science classes in high school, “it’s been pretty narrow in terms of the demographics involved,” Bianchi said. “We haven’t laid the foundation in early years to get kids on board.”
Introducing instruction on technology in elementary school could change that.
“Hopefully more and more women and under-represented minorities will soon be arriving at colleges and universities wanting to pursue computer science,” Lazowska said, “because they already understand that it’s a field that gives them the power to change the world, and it’s a field they’re good at and enjoy.”
The framework provides key ideas and skills, but the states still need to develop specific curriculum for educators to use in teaching the material. The national Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) has been working on curriculum development, taking input from the framework as it has evolved over the past year. (CTSA also helped lead the creation of the framework, along with Code.org, the Association for Computing Machinery, Cyber Innovation Center, and National Math and Science Initiative.)
Thissen, with OSPI, said that Washington educators have been working with the documents from these national efforts to develop the state’s computer science curriculum, which should be approved in December. The implementation of the curriculum will take three to four years, she said.
In recent years, the state has taken important steps to lay a foundation that supports the expansion of computer science education.
“Washington is very well set up to lead the nation,” said Pat Yongpradit, Chief Academic Officer for Code.org and the group’s lead on framework.
Rep. Drew Hansen, a democrat from Bainbridge Island, west of Seattle, has helped set the stage.
Hansen sponsored legislation that made AP computer science count as a math or science credit, not an elective; instructed the state to develop computer science standards; and directed OSPI to create a computer science endorsement for teachers.
He was also instrumental in designating $1 million a year in state funding that is available to teachers for professional development in computer science. The funding requires a match from the private sector and has been available for two years.
“The state of Washington has, with great help from private industry, made significant investments in expanding computer science education and will continue to make significant investments for as long as there is a need,” Hansen said.
Educators have the road map and support for expanding computer science instruction, but it will still take significant work to make the subject a part of basic education — particularly outside of the more urban Interstate-5 corridor and tech centers such as Seattle, Redmond and Bellevue.
Teachers are already trying to wedge a tremendous amount of material into each day to meet current curriculum requirements and prepare kids for standardized tests.
“If we can find a way to fold computer science into other core subjects — and we can — it’s really powerful,” Bianchi said. “It involves a lot of professional development so teachers can see it.”
But there is momentum, supporters said. The students are certainly eager for this, said Susan Enfield, superintendent of Highline Public Schools, located south of Seattle.
“They want to be challenged more and have more hands-on projects and have a window on how this applies outside of school,” Enfield said.
And it’s not as hard to bring to teachers along as one might think.
“There are always some folks who are champing at the bit and ready to innovate and ready to go,’ Enfield said. “I don’t need buy in from every teacher. It’s just finding the folks who want to lead and innovate.”