Computer Science Education: Preparing Informed Decision-Makers and Innovators


Jim Stanton, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network (MassCAN) led by EDC, works with industry, education, and policy leaders to enhance access to computer science education, expand professional development for teachers, and create more pathways to STEM careers. Recently, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education unanimously approved voluntary digital literacy and computer science standards for the state that were collaboratively developed by MassCAN and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education. In this post, Jim reflects on the importance of ensuring all students graduate from high school with a strong foundation in computer science education and computational thinking.

The Massachusetts Digital Literacy and Computer Science Standards developed by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education in collaboration with EDC's MassCAN represent a giant stride forward for computer science education and, ultimately, workforce development in the Commonwealth. The Standards provide clear, consistent guidance on how to ensure all students have computer science and computational thinking skills, and schools can draw upon this guidance to prepare teachers to help youth develop those skills.

For those who ask me, “Why are the Standards important? Why do all youth need to graduate from high school with baseline computer science experience, skills, and knowledge?”, I have several answers. The world is changing rapidly, and computer science is driving many of these changes. Across industries (including agriculture, manufacturing, energy, medical care, and many more) the need for workers to have computer skills and knowledge is escalating. And the variety of well-paid, essential jobs that demand computer science expertise—and require many kinds of preparation, from certifications/credentials and hands-on technical experience to associate's and bachelor's degrees—is rapidly increasing and evolving. 

For example, all kinds of work with repetitive tasks lends itself to robotics, shifts to robotics take root quickly (see Amazon’s use of robots), and this creates a heightened demand for workers who can build, operate, and repair robots. That is just one "for instance" among many. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that employment in 10 computer and information technology occupations—not counting the many other occupations in other fields that require computing skills and knowledge—is "projected to grow 12 percent from 2014 to 2024, faster than the average for all occupations."

With demand for workers growing at a faster rate than the average for all occupations, the narrow demographics of the computer science workforce represents an unsustainable growth model and weakens the innovation potential of the field. Recent studies, including a 2016 report by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, indicate that it’s essential to act quickly and decisively to “deepen and broaden” our pool of innovators. Ensuring that all youth graduate from high school with baseline computer science experience, skills, and knowledge will help this happen and strengthen the U.S. economy by tapping the talents of many groups that are largely absent from the CS workforce—including women and people of both genders who are black, Latino, and Native American.

The U.S. economy will also benefit from students who take computer science courses in school, but go on to choose careers that require no computer science expertise. Regardless of the jobs they land in, learning computer science helps youth hone "employability" skills that are an important part of their toolbox for success in any career. This includes mastering critical thinking strategies, such as how to break down very big problems into bite-sized pieces. Once you solve a bite-sized problem, it’s easier to move on to the next one in the chain. That’s one of an array of very useful skills for all students and workers that are learned in exciting and unforgettable ways in computer science class.

Finally, it is hard to fathom how technology will continue to change how things work, and impossible to predict the potential value and problems that will ensue (although it is clear that data safety will remain a primary concern and require a strong, savvy information security workforce). All youth will need to be aware of how and why technology is changing their world and to understand what those changes mean to their lives. Some baseline knowledge of programming, big data, robotics, and web design will support their understanding. It will also prepare them to participate in decision-making about computer science. Students who have no understanding of computer science will view new tools as mysterious “black boxes,” and this will leave them powerless and unable to compete in and contribute to a technology-driven world. Our country can't afford that.

With its new Standards, Massachusetts is setting in motion a comprehensive, systemic, thoughtful, and nation-leading approach to making computer science education available in all K–12 schools, to all students. Other key work must follow, including making sure that all schools have the needed technological resources and providing professional development, so that all teachers feel confident in teaching the concepts. But, now we have a road map that can help lead the way.

Date: 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016 - 10:00am