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Why K-12 Computer Science education is broken, and what we can do to fix it

If there is one thing that scholars, policy makers, industry representatives, and republican and democrat government officials agree on, it’s that education, and especially science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education is a critical priority to ensure national competitiveness, job creation, and ongoing economic prosperity. Everyone seems to agree, and yet… 22,000 California teachers got a pink slip this month, thanks to the budget crisis.

If there is one thing that scholars, policy makers, industry representatives, and republican and democrat government officials agree on, it’s that education, and especially science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education is a critical priority to ensure national competitiveness, job creation, and ongoing economic prosperity. Everyone seems to agree, and yet… 22,000 California teachers got a pink slip this month, thanks to the budget crisis. The crisis in California is only one example of the deep disconnect between our national discourse on the importance of education and our actions in the US as a whole.

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Nowhere is this gap more evident than in the equity issues surrounding K-12 Computer Science Education. In 2009, the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology partnered with the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) and the University of Arizona to address key equity challenges in K-12 computer science education. The workshop came from CSTA Executive Director Chris Stephenson’s observation that too often, the discourse around fixing K-12 STEM education happens without engaging K-12 teacher, therefore leading to a lack of community buy in that results in failure in implementing change. CSTA exists to rectify this state of affairs, providing a critical bridge between policy makers, industry and academic stakeholders, and teachers. Our organizations co-hosted a workshop focusing on the equity issues in K-12 Computer Science education, with the premise that until computer science is taught systematically to all students, regardless of socio-economic conditions, race, and gender, we will not meet our full innovative potential.

 

Consider the following facts gathered by CSTA:

        Fewer than 65% of K-12 schools offer an introductory-level computer science course.

        Fewer than 27% of K-12 schools offer an Advanced Placement computer science course.

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        Computer science is chronically underfunded

        There are no standards for a national high school curriculum for computer science education.

        Girls and underrepresented minority students are more likely to be discouraged from pursuing computer science.

 

Our workshop provided a voice for the teachers to discuss the issues they face in teaching computer science and increasing the participation of women and minorities in their classroom. The teachers discussed the following barriers to equity in the classroom:

 

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        The digital divide is alive and well –students from higher socio-economic status (often white) are more likely to have home access to technology than those students who are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (and often underrepresented). Students with no previous exposure to technology become unlikely to enroll in a CS class.

        A lack of access to technology resources and up to date curricula is also chronic in the classroom.

        A systemic lack of awareness from students and parents about the importance of Computer science education and the possibilities brought by a STEM career. This lack of awareness is especially salient for girls and underrepresented minorities, for whom there is a dearth of role models and little encouragement to pursue a computing class.

        A systemic lack of awareness and support by school administrators and guidance counselors, who have a poor understanding of computer science education.

        When curriculum exists, it is often unwelcoming and not culturally relevant for underrepresented minorities and girls.

 

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At the workshop, I was especially impressed with the solutions that teachers came up with to address these seemingly intractable challenges. For example, one teacher in attendance, an African-American woman who had experienced first-hand the barriers to pursuing computer science as a career, was incredibly savvy about how she reached out to girls and students of color. She avoided using “computer science” in her outreach and started each conversation with demos that demonstrated the most engaging aspects of the discipline: robotics, movie animation, artificial intelligence. She brought in role models from industry and academia working on cutting edge and engaging projects to dispel the misconceptions about computer science. Other teachers had formed successful partnerships with industry and academia to access resources and design curricula to engage a broader range of students. You can read the report here.

 

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