Melissa Moritz (née Gregson) is the managing director of Teach For America’s STEM Initiative.
In our high-tech world, innovators like Bill Gates, Tim Cook, and Tim Berners-Lee share a level of notoriety previously reserved for rock stars. So it’s curious that computer science, the foundation of their profession, is so often overlooked at the K-12 level. You might not even have known that today is the close of Computer Science Education Week, an event that recognizes both the transformative role of computing and the need to bolster computer science at all educational levels.
Often relegated to the shadows behind STEM subjects with more institutional entrenchment (say, algebra, biology, or chemistry), computer science courses are quite literally the key to preparing our children for the jobs of the future. Microsoft currently has about 6,000 openings—3,400 of which are for software engineers, developers, and programmers. These posts reflect our nation’s wider skills gap, wherein employers can’t find enough applicants with the technical knowledge necessary to occupy computer positions. “We are creating unfilled jobs,” Microsoft chief counsel Brad Smith has said.
Photo by Paul Keller via Flickr Creative Commons
This could be because less than one-quarter of students nationwide have access to rigorous computer science courses. Or because, as of 2011, only 2,100 U.S. high schools offered the Advanced Placement test in computer science—down 25 percent over the past five years.
And the current state of computer-science education highlights once again an incredible lack of equity in our education system, where despite 56% of all AP exam-takers being female, only 19% of AP computer science exam-takers are. The stats are worse for our students of color—according to the Computer Science Education Act of 2011, only 784 African American students nationwide took the AP computer science exam in 2008. This translates to a dramatic under-representation of women and minorities in computer science careers. Hispanics, who make up 30% of the U.S. population, account for only 6.7% of computer science bachelor degrees.
Computer science education opens a multitude of doors for students, providing them with an important framework for problem solving, building logical reasoning skills, and thinking about the complexities of the world. Lots of people have great ideas, but with a computer science background, students have a rare skill: the ability to translate those ideas into action. All business startups require essential elements like digital infrastructure, connectivity, and websites that only those with computer science skills can implement.
Fortunately, there’s an incredible amount of momentum to catch our classrooms up with the demands of our society. Google recently announced a $5 million grant to provide more than 800 public high schools with AP STEM courses, with a focus on attracting more female and minority students who show strong potential to succeed. Microsoft’s Technology Education and Literacy in Schools program is sending its employees to the frontlines of education, where they teach high-school computer science classes for a full school year.
We’re also seeing great opportunities cropping up outside the classroom. The San Francisco-based Black Girls Code implements community outreach in cities throughout the country to teach girls from under-represented communities the complexities of coding—in their first-ever workshop, attendees built their own websites. Maurya Couvares and Elizabeth Davidson, both Teach For America Philadelphia ’06 alumni, recently launched ScriptED NYC, a nonprofit that enlists tech professionals to help bridge the digital divide by teaching students in underserved areas the computer science skills they need to land jobs in this high-tech economy.
There’s a movement of innovative organizations leading the charge to more and better computer science education in our country’s schools. Organizations like the National Center for Women and Information Technology, the Computer Science Teachers Association, Girls Who Code and many, many more are putting the need for computer science literacy on our national radar. I’m so grateful to them (and the many computer science educators already out there) for investing in our students—our most critical resource—and am confident that together we can impart a future that both they deserve and our country desperately needs.