Computer science is one of the nation’s fastest growing industries. Technology evolves quickly, and students must have the skills to navigate an increasingly digital workforce. With that in mind, the Michigan State Board of Education is expected to approve the state’s first set of K-12 computer science standards on Tuesday.
Computer classes in public schools have come a long way since the 1980s, when you had to wait for a dial up modem for a connection.
Now, computer science is taught alongside all the other traditional subjects. But unlike history or literature, it’s a field wherein the process of finding the solution is arguably more important than the solution itself.
“We go into classes and we want answers,” says Ann-Marie Mapes. She’s with the Office of Systems Evaluation and Technology at the Michigan Department of Education. “Where’s the answer key? But when we're talking about computer science, there isn't necessarily an answer key. So, it's nurturing students and cultivating them to have the skills for problem solving.”
Until now, school districts in Michigan determined what they felt each computer science student should know. They’ll still have the freedom to build their own curriculum, but now with a statewide baseline.
At East Lansing High School, Cecilia Anderson leads her AP computer science class through the day’s lesson.
The course teaches students how computers work, how the web is structured and some coding principles. Anderson appreciates the state’s effort to outline the basics of computer science education. But, she concedes, that’s difficult in such a dynamic field.
“You’re never going to be able to nail down a standard,” Anderson says. “By the time it gets adopted, it’s not the standard anymore.”
Anderson’s class is getting some extra help from someone who understands the changing IT industry. Ryan Barry is a software engineer with Red Hat, an open source code company. He’s also a volunteer with the Microsoft Philanthropies TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) program.
Barry offers an up-to-date perspective on what companies need from graduates entering the pipeline.
“This way, the teachers can focus on teaching, which they are good at, and we can focus on how do we keep this relevant; how do you use this now?” Barry says.
Having that real-world voice at the table was a priority for the standards committee. Representatives from such tech giants as Apple, Google and Amazon served as advisors.
“One of the resources that we got from our colleagues at Amazon showed a number of pathways that you can take; a number of jobs,” says Mapes. “It’s just amazing the areas that are available to specialize in computer science that you and I may not know about.”
The new standards will be tailored to grade level groups; for instance, K-2, 3-5…all the way up to what’s called “high school specializing.”
Anderson says computer science should be a thread that runs through every academic subject.
“So if they're required for four years of English, within that English class, they should be teaching word processing skills, sharing documents…or Excel spreadsheets; that should be taught in the science and the math classes so that they have skills at using computers,” says Anderson.”
And there’s one more skill Anderson wants all her students to learn: being safe when online.
“That’s the biggest thing,” she says. “We searched ourselves yesterday, and some kids found – very disturbing – how much information about themselves, even though they’re minors, is out there on the net. And the biggest thing was how much was about their family.”
Sophomore Jada Koonce saw some of that data and steered clear of the hook.
“Even a website that's told us all this information, wanted you to input credit card information to figure out more information about people and by doing that, you're giving them your information so they can solicit you,” Koonce says.
Michigan is poised to become the 32nd state to adopt K-12 computer science standards. Educators believe that adding formal expectations to the classroom experience will help students evolve from passive consumers of technology to active creators.