Florida Invests $10M to Train More Computer Science Teachers

With less than one percent of students pursuing computer science majors in college, and unfilled tech jobs, the state hopes to increase the number of teachers in high schools and boost sci-tech interest in college.

by Leslie Postal, Orlando Sentinel / July 18, 2019

(TNS) — The field of computer science offers plenty of well-paying jobs, but less than 1 percent of the undergraduates enrolled in Florida’s universities earned degrees in that major last year.

State leaders hope a new $10 million investment to train more computer science teachers -- the largest in the nation -- and new flexibility in course requirements will help get more teenagers into computer science classes in high school and persuade them to stick with the subject once in college.

Gov. Ron DeSantis called the new efforts, which he signed into law in late June, a “big deal” and part of his goal of “fast tracking Florida as a great place for computer science.”

Last year, 2,145 students earned bachelor’s degrees in computer science from one of the state’s universities, according to the State University System of Florida. The 11 universities enrolled about 275,000 undergraduates, so few of their students pursued careers in the field, despite excellent employment prospects.

Florida has more than 18,000 open computing jobs, with an average salary of about $80,000, according to Code.org, a national organization pushing schools to give students more access to computer science classes.

Public school educators and university professors share DeSantis’ interest in boosting exposure to the field, and they’ve seen gains in the past few years.

This past school year, for example, all of the traditional public high schools in Orange and Seminole counties offered at least the introductory Advanced Placement computer science class, state data shows; only about half did four years ago. The Lake County school district, with no such classes four years ago, offered the course at three of eight high schools this past year, according to data from the Florida Department of Education.

“I do think it’s really important to have some experience in high school,” said Arup Guha, an associate instructor in the University of Central Florida’s computer science department. “It helps kids figure out whether they enjoy it" and to “see the nature of what computer science is like.”

Guha helped start a UCF computer science summer camp for students in 2002 because, at the time, so few local high schools offered computer science classes. It’s still running this summer.

Academically, students don’t need computer science in high school to succeed in the courses in college, he said, and plenty have excelled at UCF without it.

But high school classes, clubs and camps help pique the interest of students, showing them the field requires logic, creativity, patience and a strong math foundation, Guha said. Without those experiences in high school, he added, some students might never pursue computer science in college, even if they have an aptitude for it.

Code.org said that is particularly true for girls and black and Hispanic students, all of whom are underrepresented in the computer science field. Girls, the organization said, are 10 times more likely to pursue the field in college if they’ve had access in high school.

The male-female gaps in the field are stark. UCF graduated more computer science majors than any other state university in 2018, with 444 bachelor’s degrees awarded. Fifty seven, or less than 13 percent, went to women.

Serena Huang, 14, who is going into 10th grade at Seminole High School, attended the UCF camp this summer. She said both her parents are computer scientists, so she gets plenty of encouragement at home, but she thinks the camp, coding clubs at her school and introductory classes help other girls who might not be considering the field.

“They just don’t know about it,” she said. “I think it’s great it’s available to everyone.”

Joshua Pack, 16, soon to be a junior at Lake Nona High School, was at the camp, too. He was hoping it would help prepare him for a second AP computer science class he plans to take in the coming school year.

He likes learning to write computer programs, though he said it isn’t easy or quick.

“It’s all very math based. It’s the way you apply it. You have to think,” Joshua said. But when it works, he added, "It’s really satisfying. It’s the best.”

Code.org pushed Florida to allow the math or science swap, and has done the same in other states, convinced it will help more girls and minority students sign up for computer science classes. Florida first authorized the swap a few years ago, but only if a student also passed an “industry certification” exam. With the law DeSantis signed, the exam requirement is gone.

The organization thinks some students might choose computer science if it meant one less traditional math or science course. “Maybe it will be more fun and engaging than typical math,” said Sheela VanHoose, director of government affairs for code.org.

But a strong background in math and science, including calculus and physics if possible, is key for success as a computer science major, said Gary Leavens, chairman of UCF’s computer science department.

“We would prefer they would have a more traditional math and science background,” he added.

Seminole educators, who began their own computer science initiative five years ago, know the course swap option might not be best, given the expert advice, though they say it could help some students.

But they share the state’s, and code.org’s, interest in making sure all students have a chance to explore the field and in helping schools train more computer science teachers.

“We’re always looking for candidates who can teach those classes,” said Deputy Superintendent Anna-Marie Cote.

VanHoose said schools cannot offer private-sector salaries so will struggle to lure computer science graduates to teaching careers. For that reason, Florida’s $10 million investment in training existing teachers to teach computer science, and offering bonuses to keep them, should be lauded.

DeSantis, touting the new efforts last month at a Pinellas County school focused on technology, said a computer science push makes sense in 2019.

“Pretty much you cannot live in our modern society without dealing with technology or computers in your daily life,” he added.

©2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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