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Report lauds Utah’s computer science education

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(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gordon Moses of Pleasant Grove High School, Linda Brown of Desert Hills High School in St. George, and Shawn Caine of Panguitch High School sort candy during a June 2013 workshop at Westminster College in Salt Lake City to learn how to teach a new elective course called "Exploring Computer Science."

By Lindsay Whitehurst

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Mar 05 2014 09:21AM
Updated Mar 5, 2014 09:01PM

While Utah lags in teaching computer science to underrepresented groups, a new report applauds steps the state has taken to get more kids in-depth education on the subject.

Utah is among 17 states and the District of Columbia that clearly allow students to take computer science classes to fulfill core math or science requirements for high school graduation, a path the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) says more states should follow.

The report also singles out Exploring Computer Science, a more in-depth ninth-grade class offered at small but growing number of schools, and says the state could serve as an inspiration for the rest of the country.

"Utah certainly has taken more initiative than most states in getting some of the new things into the curriculum," said Bobby Schnabel, chair of the association’s Education Policy Committee and dean of the Indiana University School of Informatics. "If we’re doing a scorecard of everything we can possibly do, there’s more you could do, but that’s ahead of the pack now."

Still, that new elective is available at only 17 high schools, and only about a third of Utah high schools teach computer programming or computer science at all, according to the state Office of Education.

And, in 2013, only 103 Utah students took the Advanced Placement test, which can provide college credit, for computer science, and only 56 passed.

American kids get "very little" computer science education in kindergarten through 12th grade, said Schnabel. That’s a problem because the field is slated to have some of the country’s hottest job prospects in the coming years, according to the ACM’s new report, "Rebooting the Pathway to Success."

By 2020, more than 60 percent of the jobs in the much-discussed areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are projected to come in computer science.

To get kids ready for those jobs, schools need to introduce computer science early.

"Kids are far less likely to start out on the path in higher education if they haven’t been exposed to it in K-12," said Schnabel.

In Utah, a task force will urge education leaders to introduce computer skills earlier, including moving keyboarding instruction to elementary school and a high school computer literacy course to eighth grade, in a report scheduled to be presented Friday to the state Board of Education.

Nationally, the ACM is pushing for changes to curriculum requirements and getting computer science classes in all schools, across the economic and racial spectrum.

"If you look at the number of students taking AP tests, everything else goes up and up in recent years, and computer science has not," said Schnabel. "There’s just not that much room beyond the requirements. ... Those were established before the invention of computers, and they haven’t changed."

The College Board, which oversees AP, notes on its website that, in 2013, about 30,000 students total took the AP exam for computer science. Of the 103 Utah students who took the test, four were girls, ranking Utah near the bottom for girls’ participation. Only three states, where no girls attempted the test, were lower. Six Hispanic students and no black students took the test in Utah.

Nationally, less than 26 percent of computer and math jobs were held by women in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only 7 percent of computer scientists were black, compared to 13 percent of the population as a whole, and just 6 percent were Latino, even though they make up 17 percent of the U.S. population.

While American women have earned only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually since 2007 in this high-tech field, that figure is even lower in Utah, where they received just 13 percent of the degrees and certificates in computer/information sciences in 2012, according to Utah Women and Education Initiative.

As the Exploring Computer Science elective gains traction in the state, it’s also attracting a more diverse group of kids, West High School teacher Nicole Reitz-Larsen writes in an email.

"This is my second year teaching ECS," she wrote. "I have seen the numbers grow dramatically."

Interest also looks strong among administrations, said Helen Hu, a professor at Westminster College and organizer of the project to train more teachers to teach ECS in Utah. She said 70 schools want the class — more than she can accommodate.

"There’s been a lot more interest than our original goal," she said. "I’ve had teachers say to me it’s changed their teaching in all their classes because it’s inquiry-based."

Hu plans to train teachers from at least 35 more schools to teach the course this summer.

"Even if you go into marketing, you need some computer science. You need to know how computers work, and what’s even possible to create an app for," she said. "Unfortunately, our education system is behind. … We think, ‘This is what we learned when we were in school, so this is what kids need to learn when they’re in school,’ and it’s hard to keep up."

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst

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