K-12 Computer Science Creating A Case For Full-Time Status In Schools

ByMabel R. Acton

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Life has little moments. Segments of time stitched together to reveal a passing of the torch. Coding, gaming, and expanded robotic and artificial intelligence (AI) applications are creating new, comprehensive, integrated offerings that can no longer be dismissed as tomorrow’s reality. Today, computer science has transitioned from a nice-to-have into a vital cog within the U.S. education system and global economy.

The days of computer science being relegated to extracurricular activities or add-ons to lessons when time permits are over. Computer science is dominating the educational landscape bringing research, application, engagement and opportunity to students, of all ages and abilities, across the world.

This reporter wanted to dive deeper into the world of computer science to better understand current applications, roadblocks to ubiquitous status and future-forward ideas driving the industry. I spent time with pi-top’s CEO and former interim CFO of the U.S. Department of Education, Stanley Buchesky to find out more.

Rod Berger: What are some current trends you see in the K-12 computer science market?

Stanley Buchesky: K-12 computer science is at the beginning of an enormous wave of growth right now.

There are many reasons for this, but the main reason is necessity. There is a substantial gap between what schools are teaching and the job skills that students’ future employers demand. Some studies predict that more than 800 million jobs globally will be automated in the next decade—eliminating some jobs but creating an increase in tech sector jobs.

Schools have traditionally focused on the core curriculum subjects like reading, science, social studies and math, but they’ve been slow to adopt technology. Finally, schools are beginning to understand that technology and computer science will be an integral part of professional life for almost every student, and they need to start preparing those students for the future.

It’s not just schools. In one Gallup poll, nine in 10 parents say instruction in computer science is an essential use of resources at their child’s school, and those same parents want their child to learn more about computer science in the future.

Groups like Code.org and K12CS are instrumental in helping State Education Agencies (SEAs) integrate computer science into their core curricula. They’ve built the framework for schools to follow—a set of nine policy principles that includes developing state plans, implementing computer science standards, allocating funding, teacher training and more.

And it’s beginning to work.

Since 2017, the number of states that have allocated funding specifically for computer science programs has jumped from nine to 31, and all 50 states and DC now allow computer science to count toward a graduation requirement. Currently, three states require all students to take computer science before graduation—Arkansas, South Carolina, and Nevada.

Every year, more states add computer science to their required curricula. But it’s not possible to change curriculum state-wide with one isolated action. They generally implement three-year roll-out plans, meaning we will continue to see substantial growth in this sector every year for the foreseeable future.

In fact, just this week, Kansas announced the passage of new legislation requiring all schools to offer computer science on a similar rollout schedule. More noteworthy is that the bill also funds teacher training and certifications, addressing the dearth of qualified computer science teachers, which is a major impediment to implementing computer science programs.

Berger: How has the pandemic impacted the implementation of computer science?

Buchesky: During Covid-19, schools were forced to heavily invest in technology. They purchased laptops, and tablets for students, invested in bandwidth and wifi improvements, subscribed to online learning environments, and trained teachers to use this technology. Code.org reported that one-to-one devices in middle and high school increased from 66% to 90% and at the elementary level, it increased from 42% to 84%.

The great thing about these investments is that it’s the same technology infrastructure needed to implement a computer science program.

Additionally, it’s not simply about investing in technology. We had to have the teachers’ buy-in. Even educators who were hesitant to use technology were forced to adopt it. They had to teach from their laptops, learn to use Zoom, adapt their lesson plans for online formats and present those lessons from a screen instead of a board in front of the class. The teaching profession got a full year of technology-specific professional development because of Covid-19 and teachers are now more confident in computer skills.

Berger: What are districts doing right and what are districts doing wrong concerning computer science implementation in their curricula?

Buchesky: States and districts that have begun working on a plan to implement computer science into their curriculum in a more methodical way are probably doing it right. A three year roll-out might seem like a long plan, but if they really are thinking about computer science as a core part of their curriculum, they need time to ensure their schools are ready.

There are schools and districts that want to implement computer science but don’t have computer science mandates, so they probably have fewer budget dollars to put toward computer science. These schools often need to piece together programs for their students. Many times, these programs are short-term coding camps or a single semester of computer science as an elective. While this is definitely better than nothing, the students miss out on the opportunity to develop their skills beyond the very basics. It would be like teaching students to read, but stopping lessons once they get to the first grade level.

But, districts don’t need to reinvent the wheel. K12CS created a framework that many states are following. The framework includes core concepts and practices that are built into pathways from elementary to high school and from beginner to advanced and tied to learning standards.

Berger: Why it is important to ground computer science learning in real-world experiences?

Buchesky: Computer Science isn’t a subject, it’s a 21st century skill that is going to be needed by almost every student regardless of their career path. It’s a type of literacy that will be woven through our students’ lives beyond high school and college.

Because of this, they need to learn exactly how computer science impacts the world around them. The best way to do this is through Project Based Learning (PBL). It’s hands-on and fun, and students apply what they learn to the real world. The result is high engagement and retention of information. More importantly, students develop a passion for learning.

Computer Science is more than just sitting in front of a computer and writing code. It’s understanding what that code can do! That’s why it’s important for schools to give our kids hands-on experience of creating something and using code to manipulate it.

When students see the results of their work, it improves their awareness of the power of technology in their day-to-day lives and inspires them to pursue careers in technology.

Berger: How does an updated computer science approach impact our place/standing in a very competitive global market and what are the implications if we stall out?

Buchesky: According to a recent Rand report, without access to computer science education, industries and businesses won’t be able to keep pace with technological innovation.

And a study by Brookings discovered a positive effect on the economic growth of countries that have large numbers of information, communications, and technology (ICT) graduates. The belief is that by failing to invest in computer science and technology education, countries can limit their global competitiveness, resulting in governments that are less able to support their citizens.

Already, most of Europe and Asia require computer science education in primary school, secondary school or both. The United States has some catching up to do.

Buchesky and pi-top have doubled down in their belief that creating engaging experiences embedded with sound learning opportunities and principles will yield sustainable results for users and the pi-top family.

It appears the computer science world has found another gem to stitch together more stories of relevance and application for a progressive and vibrant education system. Maybe now the computer science sector will confidently sit at the larger education table, for good.

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.