Calling all schools: Why you need rigorous and engaging computer science courses

A perspective from Jan Cuny, Program Director for Computer Science Education and Workforce Development at the National Science Foundation

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CS Principles, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Underrepresentation in the IT workforce is a long-standing problem. Women, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and indigenous peoples, and persons with disabilities all participate in computing in very low numbers. As a result, these groups are missing out on the opportunity to gain the skills they will need to excel in today's 21st Century careers and activities, and we are all missing out on the benefits of their talents, creativity, and innovation. NSF and its partners are working to solve this problem.

While it's easy to get kids-all kids-engaged in computing early with robots, e-textiles, and other interactive technologies, engagement alone isn't enough. We need to build their competencies, teach them computational thinking and problem solving skills; we need to give them the opportunity to be, not just users, but creators and adapters of technology. In addition, we need to show them that these skills are empowering and relevant to their lives, connecting computing to potential careers and interests.

For many kids, the connection between careers and computing is blocked at the high school level: few of our high schools teach any computer science. In fact, we teach less computer science in high school now than we did two decades ago! Only 19% of our students take a single CS course. This lack of CS in high schools disproportionately affects women and minorities: women because they don't see any counters to the popular misconceptions about computing and minorities because they are more likely to attend low-resourced schools that don't offer any CS course.

NSF is addressing these diversity problems by funding the development of two new high school courses: an introductory course called Exploring Computer Science, and a new AP course called CS Principles. Both courses were designed to be engaging and inspiring for all students. Both teach programming but are not programming-centric; they also cover the design of algorithms and software, computational problem solving, the wide range of potentially transformative applications of computing, and ethics and social impacts. These courses are being piloted and adopted in hundreds of schools across the country and many of the pilots are already seeing representative numbers of women and minorities. NSF is also funding projects that are working to make accommodations for students with disabilities.

In addition to a comprehensive CS curriculum, we also need great CS teachers. Since most CS teachers come from other disciplines, they need access to pre-service and in-service preparation and support. NSF has funded 20 large projects around the country to develop scalable models of professional development that can be used by school districts in preparing CS teachers. To reach all schools though, we will need a much larger effort. It will take a national movement.

And that movement is happening! The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) have helped to shape that movement since the beginning. More recently, Code.org, with its amazing marketing prowess, its Hour of Code, and its success in attracting major funding, has completely changed the national conversation.

In addition, NSF has also partnered with Project Lead the Way, Teach for America, and the National Math and Science Initiative - all well-established organizations that have sustained efforts to get STEM subjects into schools, and are now incorporating CS into their portfolios. NSF is also partnering with foundations and initiatives like New York City Foundation for Computer Science (CSNYC) and Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network (MassCAN) that are supporting regional and local schools and teachers with local funding.

By working together, we can ensure that every student today has the opportunity to apply their talent and creativity in the computationally- and data-enabled future of tomorrow.