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Washington State Continues to Push for Computer Science Education

Groups across the state are working together to provide access to computer science education to every student, but still have a ways to go.

Washington state has brought together education, business and community organizations to move computer science education forward and has become one of the leading states in this area. But it's taken a lot of collaboration to get this far, and state leaders still have more work to do. 

At the Governor's STEM Education Innovation Alliance meeting on July 13, leaders from a variety of sectors talked about recent progress they've made on science, technology, engineering, math and computer science. They also shared ideas about what policy recommendations to make to the Legislature next year. While they're still working on those recommendations, CEO Hadi Partovi of the nonprofit advocacy organization threw out two big goals: Give every K-8 student a foundation in computer science and offer a full-year computer science course in every high school by 2020 or 2022. Another leading computer science state — Arkansas — already made computer science classes available to every high school last year.

"We want to see computer science in a real way in every high school, and we have opportunities to do this kind of thing," Gov. Jay Inslee said in the meeting. He and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson are leading the Governors' Partnership for K-12 Computer Science, which is bringing together governors Friday, July 15, at the National Governors Association meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, for a policy discussion and a short coding tutorial.

Cross-sector partnerships

Collaboration seems to be the key for Washington computer science education to move forward as the issue is uniting non-profit advocacy organizations, legislators, technology companies and education institutions. and another non-profit, Washington STEM, started in 2013 and 2011 respectively and have been pulling together support from all these groups. Their support helped representatives Drew Hansen and Chad Magendanz work across the aisle to pass two major pieces of computer science legislation. In the 2013-14 session, House Bill 1472 allowed computer science to count for high school science and math graduation requirements.

"The initial bill around AP computer science really just exposed all of the other pieces that needed attention," said Caroline King, chief policy and strategy officer at Washington STEM. "But also, importantly, it exposed real excitement and enthusiasm from educators and students."  

In the 2015-16 session, House Bill 1813 created a $2 million matching grant program to draw more women and underrepresented minorities into computer science, and the second round of those grants went out at the end of June. The bill also doubled the capacity of higher education institutions to address the shortage of qualified graduates and created a computer science teaching endorsement for K-12 educators who graduate from teachers' colleges. Both Washington STEM and the Washington Technology Industry Association worked with the legislators on this bill.

A number of major tech companies make their home in Washington's Puget Sound area, including Microsoft and Amazon, while Silicon Valley-based companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple have opened branch offices there. The tech industry has been asking colleges to graduate students who have the skills to fill the large number of job openings in software development and other areas across the country. 

"They all have a vested interest in ensuring that they can draw the talent to their companies, so they've been very supportive all the way through," said Magendanz, a Republican ranking minority member on the Education Committee who also serves on the Appropriations, and Technology & Economic Development committees.

Even though software development is one of the most common jobs in the state, not many legislators had software development backgrounds back in 2013 when Magendanz went to the Legislature with a mission to close the skills gap. While serving on a nuclear submarine in the Navy, Magendanz wrote software in his spare time, and when he finished his service, he moved to Washington to work for Microsoft for 10 years. Both Magendanz and Hansen are running for re-election this year, and if they win their elections, they plan to address another component of the computer science skills gap in 2017: early internships for high school students, Magendanz said.

Moving ahead

The legislators see potential for a bill that would establish a clearinghouse for internships in the tech sector. The clearinghouse would allow students to find and apply for internships in one place, and companies could share the administrative overhead of posting internships, which will especially help small and medium-sized companies that couldn't afford to do it on their own. These internships will address the skills gap and youth unemployment while also helping students hone soft skills including teamwork, managing others and interacting with customers. 

Because of the way many Washington school days are structured, students only have six periods a day to meet the 24-credit high school graduation requirement. That doesn't leave much room for electives including computer science or for failing a course, which could push them off-track for graduation.

"We're working to basically ensure that there's some buffer there, that kids have the chance to experiment in high school," Magendanz said.  

Along with working out internship legislation, other leaders in this movement see a number of issues to tackle going forward. From Washington STEM's point of view, computer science and STEM education opportunities should be integrated throughout K-12 schools each day so every student can access these resources — not just the ones that receive philanthropic donations.

At the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, STEM Program Supervisor Clarence Dancer sees two major challenges left: infrastructure and instructors. Especially for rural schools, it's difficult to find enough money to provide bandwidth for students to practice computer science online, not to mention challenging to get affordable pricing from broadband providers. It's also not clear where all of the computer science instructors will come from because few teachers exist in this field.

"You've got to have the equipment, you've got to have the infrastructure and you need an instructor," Dancer said.