August 15, 2013

Tech, Prepped

Reigniting student interest in computer science to prepare the workforce of tomorrow

Teens love technology. And although much of the economy is still recovering from recession, the tech sector is booming again. So it makes sense to think that teenagers would be flocking to programming and computer science classes, right?

Not exactly.

“There’s a fundamental difference between creating and using technology,” says EDC’s Jim Stanton. “Students are willing to explore technology and load up their phones with apps, but it’s a different skill to think, ‘How does this really work?’ and then want to create things for that phone.”

Stanton is the executive director of the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network (MassCAN), a new partnership of education, industry, and technology groups in the state. The network seeks to expand computing opportunities for students while working with industry partners to promote employment opportunities in the technology sector.

Though the effort is still young, MassCAN has won a lot of support. Google has signed on, and so has the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, which boasts a state-wide membership of more than 500 hi-tech companies. The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and Massachusetts Life Sciences Center are also providing financial and directional support.

“We have an extraordinary opportunity to extend a new field to middle and high schoolers,” says Stanton. “It’s so important to inspire kids to solve the problems that need to be solved.”

Unlocking doors to future careers

In its Occupational Outlook Handbook, which predicts employment trends from 2010–2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics offers that “employment in computer systems design and related services is expected to increase by 47 percent.” And as scientific and manufacturing fields increasingly rely on sophisticated computers, computer scientists and programmers will be indispensable. Stanton says that even at the Broad Institute—a joint Harvard and MIT venture known for its scientific research—computer scientists outnumber biologists.

So why does interest in computer science lag in the face of so much opportunity? Stanton blames the tech bubble of the late 1990s as the main reason. Once the bubble burst, the tech industry was seen as unstable.

“It made parents and school guidance counselors nervous,” he says. “And we saw computer science enrollments decline at college level.”

A decade removed from those lean times, the economy is once again a welcoming place for computer scientists—especially in Massachusetts, where the innovation economics, biotech, and advanced manufacturing fields have taken off. A degree in computer science is a key that can unlock many doors.

Introducing elements of computer science in elementary school is one way to begin to hook kids on programming. And Stanton says that collaborative approaches to learning can help K–6 students develop some of the relational skills necessary for team-based work—a key need in computer science fields.

But it’s in grades 7–12 that the most work can be done. MassCAN does not seek to require courses in computer science, but it does advocate for more elective pathways for students interested in computer science as a field. Stanton says that middle school students should have access to an introductory course that explores elements of computational thinking.

Expanding opportunities

At the high school level, two new courses are already on the way. The College Board will soon offer a second Advanced Placement-level offering, titled Computer Science: Principles, to complement its existing AP Computer Science course. And the National Science Foundation is funding the development of an introductory look at computing and programming, titled Exploring Computer Science, which will be piloted over the next two years.

Stanton’s dream is for MassCAN to support the local adoption of these new courses by creating a network of regional training hubs. These hubs would offer teacher professional development while helping to connect computer science teachers with peers who are doing similar work in other districts. In doing so, it would also burnish Massachusetts’ reputation as a K–12 technology leader.

This initiative is especially timely now. Last year, students in Massachusetts sat for more than 85,000 Advanced Placement exams; only 1 percent of those were in Computer Science.

“When we say that there’s a gap between school and career, it’s not a skills gap, it’s a numbers gap,” says David Petty, a computer science and robotics teacher at Winchester High School, just north of Boston. “Students who take computer science are getting a good introduction to the field—there’s just not enough of them.”

Petty, who is working on issues of teacher preparation and licensure with MassCAN, is convinced that he is reaching only some of the students who could benefit from instruction in computer science. Many of his students have long been drawn to computers and engineering, so computer science is a logical landing spot for them. To attract students beyond this group, Petty believes that offering more—and earlier—avenues into the field is critical.

“There should be more of a continuum of options for students in computer science,” he says. “And that’s one of the things that MassCAN is doing—promoting earlier exposure to these fields.”

This is already happening in Winchester. The district offers an entire unit on robotics in the seventh grade. And in addition to Java-heavy AP Computer Science, high school students can select courses on mobile app or game development.

Stanton believes this is a step in the right direction. And with so many companies and educators invested in the effort, MassCAN is already beginning to widen the talent pipeline.

“Every student in school today will be participating in a world where computer literacy is essential,” says Stanton. “We don’t want them to be spectators in that world.”