By Jennifer Wohlleb
It’s a field full of highly available and high-paying jobs, yet educators across the state and the country are having trouble turning out enough computer-programming students to keep up with the demand.
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates 1.4 million computer-related jobs will be needed by 2020, but at current rates, only 400,000 computer science students will be in the pipeline.
PHOTO: Jeremy Marquardt, a sophomore at Highlands High School, Fort Thomas Independent Schools, receives help from AP computer science teacher Sonja Fischer. Highlands is one of 19 Kentucky public schools that offer AP computer science. Photo by Amber Carr/Highlands High School student
It’s hard to pinpoint where the problem lies – lack of interest or awareness by students, not enough teachers, not enough classes – but everyone from the heads of tech giants like Microsoft and Facebook to state legislators to classroom teachers are trying to tackle the issue.
“This is not just a Kentucky issue, it’s a national issue, which is why Code.org exists, why Microsoft is doing the TEALS (Technology Education And Literacy in Schools) program in Lee County,” said AdvanceKentucky Executive Director Joanne Lang, referring to two initiatives by major tech firms aimed at getting more students interested in computer programming. “Why do we need that, why is Microsoft, why are software engineers of top companies in the country contributing any time to something like this? The fact is, we have so few courses, so few schools, to me that’s the clarion cry for more attention to this.”
Currently, only 19 Kentucky public high schools out of more than 200 offer AP computer science, which Lang said quantifies the problem.
“It’s like reading and writing; it’s a basic skill today and we’re not teaching it,” she said. “I think that’s the key. It’s essential. If kids can’t understand – and not that everyone is going to be a software engineer – but if young people don’t understand the workings of technology, they won’t be able to contribute and participate in the economy as well as they could.”
Dale Winkler, associate commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education’s Office of Career and Technical Education, said the state is doing a good job turning out students on the information technology side, but needs to do more in the computer science and programming areas.
“We just had a study conducted last fall around career and technical education and this was done by the Southern Region Education Board, and in that report, that was one of the things that they pointed out,” he said. “We needed to look at developing pathways around computer science and computer programming, specifically, because there is a gap there.”
In the classroom
Highlands High School in Fort Thomas Independent is one of the schools offering AP computer science and is making a concerted effort to get more students into the program. Principal Brian Robinson said the lack of opportunities in this subject area is part of the problem, but some solutions are starting to take root.
“Some early coding opportunities for young kids, as young as elementary school, can, should and are being considered by a lot of different places,” he said. “Not necessarily at the levels we’re talking about with AP computer science, but early introduction to coding and the logic involved would grow some interest in several different ways. Whether (those opportunities) be camps, integration into the regular classroom, or some enrichment opportunities, clubs, there just needs to be a variety of opportunities throughout the year.”
John Robinson, AP Computer Science teacher at Johnson Central High School said he actively recruits students he thinks may have an interest or talent in the subject.
“The one thing that I utilize as far as recruiting for my classes is the fact that a lot of the students I have in my classes are gamers,” he said. “Most of them want to create video games, and one of the basis of creating video games is programming. If they want to venture into that, they have to get the basics for programming. That’s how I’ve gotten the diverse group that I have, because this group is not necessarily the students who are taking calculus or statistics, chemistry or physics. A large majority of my students are not doing that.”
He said students also have to be willing to put in the time on work that can be dry.
“It can be one of those situations where they are looking at lines of code and unless you are someone like me who can sit there and read it, and like puzzles and try to figure out what words mean what, it’s a difficult task for some,” he said. “It’s a whole new language; it’s more like French, Spanish, German, sometimes even Russian when they use those Cyrillic letters. Not only is it like a math class, it’s also a foreign language.”
Sonja Fischer, who teachers both math and AP computer science at Highlands, keeps an eye out for students who have the aptitude for this subject.
“I typically try to peg students who think more outside the box, more logical and invite them to come to class the next year and that seems to help a lot, identifying different students who I think will be successful in there,” said Fischer, who worked as a programmer in the private sector before deciding to teach.
She also tries to recruit female students, who make up about 25 percent of her class. According to Code.org, there is a huge gender gap in both the classroom and the workforce in computer programming, with women earning 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees, but comprising only 12 percent of computer science degree holders. Minorities also are underrepresented, with Hispanic and African-American students making up 8 percent of the students taking AP computer science.
One of Fischer’s students, Catherine Schwegman, plans to study computer science in college this fall.
“I took computer science because Ms. Fischer was my teacher for geometry and she suggested it,” she said. “Also, I had taken Spanish and it helped; it was really similar to take a foreign language.”
Who can teach it?
Who in Kentucky can teach computer science and programming depends on how the class is counted. If it is counted as a student’s fourth math credit, then it must be taught by a teacher with math certification. If it’s counted as an elective, the teacher may have some other type of certification, often a business certification.
Lang said in the 100 schools AdvanceKentucky has been in, there is often confusion about who can teach these classes.
Winkler said there is no teacher preparation program around computer science in the state “other than a work-based or occupation-based certification where you would take someone who’s been working in the field for at least four years and they could go through occupation-based certification.
“That has been a discussion for the past six months that the Department of Education has had with some folks at the postsecondary institutions,” he said, “what would a computer science teacher preparation program look like, if we were going to issue a certification around computer science?”
Robinson, the Highlands principal, said there needs to be flexibility, at least in the short term, for certification in this area.
“If you’re going to have small class sizes and few students are going to sign up for it, economically it’s difficult for a school system to hire a full-time teacher,” he said. “Maybe they are a business teacher who also did coding and has the proficiency and has the skills but only has one section of computer science available and four sections of business. So maybe we should be able to test into that certification. I think there are some ways to explore it until we can build the kind of enrollment that will attract a professional programmer.”
Building capacity and momentum
Lang said groups such as the College Board, which administers AP courses, and Code.org and CodeHS.com, are trying to develop a curriculum and the personnel to teach it.
“Across the country there are a whole lot of people trying to figure this out and offering resources and just knowing that you have to dig in and do it,” she said. “You still need to find interested teachers. To build long-term sustainability you need that expertise if it’s going to be sustained; you need that expertise in the school at some level, even if you are teaching side-by-side with a remote software engineer, you still need to have the capacity of someone who can answer questions on the ground.”
Initiatives like CodeHS.com and Microsoft’s TEALS program, which has several pilots across the country, including Lee County Schools, have software engineers teaching remotely, alongside a teacher in the classroom, which allows that teacher to learn with their students.
“It’s a way to build capacity, so that over a period of time you have capacity in the school for teachers to teach it themselves,” Lang said.
She said the College Board also is developing a sequence of three courses to build interest in computer science, which would start by introducing to younger students some of these basic concepts and why they are important and then building on those concepts as the students get older, a thought echoed by the Highlands computer science teacher.
“I think from my perspective, if we can get some of these kids at a younger age to be interested,” Fischer said, “then maybe by the time they get to high school, then they are coming to me rather than me having to recruit people for the classes.”