Technology proponents don’t need to make a case for the role of computer science in tomorrow’s job market. Today, it’s self-evident in the economy and daily life. Tech advocates, however, are calling on educators to prepare students by institutionalizing computer science in core curriculums.
On the front lines of this campaign is Code.org. The advocacy group, which offers educational tools for teachers and students, lobbies to yoke computer science alongside traditional mathematics and science courses at all grade levels. The organization gained notoriety in 2013 with its Hour of Code campaign, that since its launch in December, has drawn more than 38 million students who’ve participated in the campaign’s coding activities — with 10 million, its initial goal, in the first three days of the campaign.
Roxanne Emadi, a promotional strategist for Code.org., says despite technology's pervasiveness there is great need for educators to distinguish between computer science, the study of how computers work, from technology training, where students learn software programs to accomplish tasks.
"We think there's a big difference between knowing how to use technology and knowing how to create technology,” Emadi said.
She has called for reforms, saying that despite broad acceptance of technology’s impact in tomorrow’s workplace, research shows that 90 percent of schools don’t teach computer science and many don’t even know they’re not teaching it — the schools mistake tech usage with computer science courses.
The reality is current curriculums are not sufficient to answer the requirements of a global economy. Using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Code.org estimates that by 2020 there will be 1 million more computing jobs than students to fill them if educational trends continue.
"Really, the biggest problem in this country, is many schools want to teach computer science. They know this is important — that it's going to be the future for whatever students will go into career wise — but they don't know how to teach it."
Code.org hopes to aid educators in the process with online courses, teaching materials and suggested curriculum instruction. The organization has also successfully lobbied 13 states to make computer science courses qualify as math or science credits that can be applied toward high school graduation.
However, the organization is not alone in its efforts. Across the U.S. there are hundreds of computer science clubs and programs that provide educational outlets as students wait for public education curriculums to catch up.
One of these programs is in Raleigh, N.C., where a group called the Raleigh Digital Connectors is making inroads for tech-savvy teens. The program, launched by the city in 2010 and founded by the non-profit One Economy, went from teaching students basic software to providing advanced courses and coaching in coding and computing projects.
Gail Roper, Raleigh’s CIO and community relations officer, said the program is highly competitive to enter and heavily focused on job skills and entrepreneurship.
"We're in a digital economy, and so you're behind the game when you don't have certain skills and I think we try to balance out where our students are at in life," she said.
To guide students in the program — limited to 15 per cohort ages 14-21 — Roper said the RDC’s curriculum is purposefully taught to develop multiple skill sets students will need in the real world. For example, Roper said, they teach code but at the same time connect career development and entrepreneurial skill sets such as marketing, financial literacy and business plan creation.
"We're seeing a generation of kids that really get it,” Roper said, adding computer science should be taught as early as possible.
Students come to the RDC from various backgrounds, cultures and goals. By the end of the program, the impact on students has led to entrepreneurial ventures in gaming, app development and even clarified college pursuits. Linda Jones, program manager, said RDC has set students down paths of self discovery.
“We've had some students come into our classroom with one major in mind, but after going through our curriculum, change their mind and actually major in an IT profession." Jones said.
Popularity for the program has increased to such a degree that it has been implemented in two parts of the city. Typically, 56 applicants will bid for each cohort of 15 spots, and often a candidate will apply already having advanced programming skills.
Since its start, large supporters like IBM have stepped in to fund the RDC’s many activities that include refurbishing computers and teaching digital literacy as community service projects.
Complementing computer science programs, friendly competition has been another way cities have cultivated education. This can’t be more apparent than with the SPARK App League led by the Town of Gilbert, Ariz., and facilitated by Arizona State University’s College of Technology and Innovation.
SPARK (Schools Participate in App Resource and Knowledge) App League, was envisioned by Town Manager Patrick Banger to promote the use of town data sets for high school software developers to design real-world apps. Prizes are awarded to category winners and the contest, held over the course of 40 days, has drawn high school students from across nearby cities of Phoenix and Casa Grande.
"It's kind of progressed every year that we've been doing this." said Alfredo Moreno, Gilbert’s digital applications specialist who directs the competition.
The contest started with only 75 students when it began in 2013 and has since jumped to 250 student at the close of its 2014 competition. Moreno says the league is made up of computer clubs and students from high school computer science courses. Beyond simply making use of Gilbert’s department data through apps, the initiative has spurred a wealth of innovation in unexpected and positive ways.
In 2014 the prize for the best overall app was awarded to Kylee Burgess, Mikayla Whalen and Jiaqi Wuan, an all-girls team from Phoenix’s Centennial High School. Considering the IT industry’s reputation of being a male-dominated field, Moreno said the win was welcomed and hinted at what computer science in education can do to balance demographics.
To spur further growth of computer science, Emadi said Code.org is developing curriculum for young children in elementary school. However, education becomes critical starting in middle school and high school since coursework builds on itself for college-level courses.
To teachers and administrators who feel they don’t have the right technology, or who are perhaps overwhelmed, Emadi said you don't have to know everything and the latest technology is nice but not vital to teach code.
“Exposure is the biggest thing,” she said, “And once kids just try it — or run their own program right in front of their eyes — that's exciting and really empowering.”