Julia Steiny: We’ll Never Achieve STEM Goals Without Computer Science

by Julia Steiny

Back in the day, the high-tech innovation that rocked my world was a self-correcting typewriter.  Mere keystrokes replaced the black-ink ribbon with a white-out tape so I could erase mistakes by typing.  Absolute bliss for someone living a writing-intensive life.

Today, super-sophisticated computers and electronics are everywhere.  Literally.  Devices are in everyone’s hands (to an annoying extent), implanted in people’s bodies, and managing all manner of data-heavy work like traffic, government databases, massive communications systems, and more.

Julia Steiny

Electronic technology has become the lifeblood of all developed economies.  Even nature-bound work — landscape gardeners, wedding florists and farmers — use computers for billing, research, ordering supplies, advertising their wares.

Ubiquitous.  Critical to everyone’s daily life.

So you would think that America’s K-12 education system would be frantically preparing students for all manner of computer skills, from software engineers to hardware experts.  But how many schools do you know that routinely offer computer science in their curriculum, to most students?

For years now, the business community has been pushing educators to get more students into STEM fields — without great success.  STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.  The remarkable dearth of qualified employees in these areas means that even during the recent recession, thousands of jobs went begging for lack of trained applicants.

But in last December’s presentation to the Massachusetts’ Governor’s STEM Council, an industry group, the MASS Tech Hub, made the point that the foundational problem is the lack of computer science.  “Computing is both the biggest job sector of STEM today and has the largest future growth expectations.  ..  Tech isn’t just an industry or a job function, it’s part of nearly every aspect of our economy.”  No STEM job gets done without computer science.

Massachusetts, btw, has perhaps the best trained technology workforce in the country.  Its tech sector produces nearly 20 percent of their Gross Domestic Product.  But they are scrambling for workers.

Between 2010-2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the current 900,000 software engineering jobs to grow by 30 percent.  The 300,000 computer and information systems managerial jobs will grow 18 percent.  Database administrators, 31 percent.  And that’s not even counting the civil engineers or biochemists and biophysicisists.

Hey, it’s not even considering the Information Technology (IT) person that virtually every organization now needs on staff or available for hire.

Ask any business who needs software engineers if they can find workers.  Mighty slim pickings.  Anecdotally, my data pals report that their new hires are largely self-taught.  Schools are very little help with this problem.

So an industry group has resorted to selling computer science via celebrity gods.  Check out the aptly-named video What Most Schools Don’t Teach on code.org.  Super-celebrities like Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, a basketball and a rap star talk about feeling like superstars when they first could make miracles happen on their computer screen.  Anyone, they assert, can read, do math, and program.  Coding is not the exclusive province of nerds and geniuses.  And even if you don’t enter a STEM field, the skills will support any field you choose.

Oh, and the not-so-subtle underlying message is that you too can be obscenely wealthy, famous, and work in cool places with live bands, pools and free lunch.

It quotes the late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple:  “Everyone in this country should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think.”

Now that I agree with.

So if computer science is a necessary skill, right up there with reading and writing, why isn’t it pervasive in schools?

For the most comprehensive answer, see Running on Empty — The Failure to Teach K–12 Computer Science in the Digital Age.  It says, for example, that even as “we move toward an ever-more computing-intensive, … most states treat high school computer science courses as simply an elective and not part of a student’s core education.”

Our system is greatly hampered by the fact that “government policies underpinning the K–12 education system are deeply confused, conflicted, or inadequate to teach engaging computer science as an academic subject.”

Only 9 states allow computer science to count towards math or science requirements.

If anything, since NCLB’s demand that all kids perform proficiently, according to state standards, computer science has gotten increasingly pushed out of the school day, at best into elective courses — that displace music and art — or after-school clubs.

There’s no room for computer science in the conventional 6, 7-period secondary-school day, with its curriculum rooted in the 19th century.

Although, Russia, India and Israel, among others, found ways of embedding it in their schools, K-12.

America’s reputation as the nation of innovators is receding.  The K-12 system needs a re-boot, and not just more tinkering around the edges.

Thoughts on a partial solution next week.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny
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