New Partnership Enhances Computer Science Education for Middle Schoolers

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Harlandale ISD students work on computers during a S.T.E.M. workshop in 2015.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Harlandale ISD students work on computers during a S.T.E.M. workshop in 2015.

What was once a niche area of interest for computer “geeks” is now the lingua franca of the global economy.

At a press conference at BiblioTech South, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-23) announced a multi-faceted partnership between his office, Bexar County, the University of Texas, school districts within his congressional district, and private partners. The initiative will provide computer science certification and training to middle school educators.

“Coding is the language of the 21st century. If you can’t speak it, you’re going to be left behind,” Hurd said. 

A pilot program at BiblioTech South will take place March 23-25, 2017. Teachers can apply through Hurd’s website through Jan. 31. 

Private partners Dell, Brocade, Facebook, and Intel, are already committed to the initiative. For them, homegrown talent is a vital resource. At the press conference, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas indicated that it too wanted to sign on to help scale the initiative throughout the 23rd Congressional district.

Hurd himself has a long background at the intersection of technology and security. From his seat as Chairman of the Information Technology Subcommittee on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, he says he “sees the gaps” in the tech sector’s human capital.

Andrea Connor, 7th Grade Student from Lopez Middle School, shares why Computer Science is important to her.

Courtesy / Will Hurd

Andrea Conner, 7th Grade Student from Lopez Middle School, shares why Computer Science is important to her.

Last year 42,000 tech jobs went unfilled in Texas. These jobs average $89,000 per year, according to Hurd. Only 2,100 students graduated with computer science degrees from Texas universities. Only 5,000 high school students took the computer science AP exam, and of those students 24% were female, less than 900 were Latino, and less than 200 were African-American.

Those numbers are bad enough, Hurd said, and it’s not enough just to focus on the jobs that exist. Technology is changing the world in such a way that kids will enter a radically different job market than their parents.

“We’ve got to do a better job preparing our kids for the jobs that don’t exist yet,” Hurd said.

With HB 5, high school students are able to choose an “endorsement,” which is comparable to a broad major. Not enough students choose the STEM endorsement. This is likely because computer science, coding, and software development are new to them. With limited exposure they cannot make an informed choice.

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd

That’s why Hurd wants to focus on middle school.

There’s another hurdle though. When UT Austin’s Center for STEM Education Deputy Director Carol Fletcher counted the number of pre-service teachers graduating with computer science certifications, she found 14.

“This is a problem we can solve,” Fletcher said.

Through WeTeach_CS, Fletcher’s department is multiplying the number of computer science credentialed teachers in Texas schools. The March pilot, which will also partner with web-development framework company Bootstrap, will add 40 in Bexar County alone.

Districts won’t have to hire new teachers, as the course will allow teachers to overlay computer science training with the necessary math and science curriculum needed to meet state and federal standards.

Incorporating technology into other areas of instruction will only add to preparing students for what is ahead. Information technology has disrupted “business as usual” in nearly every major sector, Brocade systems engineer manager Dennis Dodd said. Companies that have not adjusted have suffered.

Around 60% of the Fortune 500 companies from 1996 are no longer on the list, Dodd said, because they have been replaced by those who have learned to leverage technology effectively.

In the 2017-18 school year, Lopez Middle School in North East ISD, as well as other area middle schools, will have teachers in place who have been through the training. Superintendents from Somerset, Northside, and Southwest ISDs were all in attendance at the press conference.

“Expanding computer science opportunities down to middle school will help us build engaging and relevant technology experiences to prepare students for high school, college, and career,” NEISD Superintendent Brian Gottardy said.

Lopez Middle School student Andrea Conner summed up the perspective of many of her peers when she said, “It would be kind of hard to exist not knowing how to use a computer.”

By that she did not mean that it would be hard to eat or breathe, but that it would be hard to navigate the world, communicate with those not in the same room, and access information. Students Conner’s age are not disturbed by the growing dependence on computers and the ensuing vulnerabilities and security needs – this is all they know.

For the students, it won’t be an introduction to technology. Mobile and internet-based technology is their native environment. Knowing how to shape and lead that world is the basis for tomorrow’s leaders. It is becoming a new and essential literacy.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.

Bekah McNeel / Rivard Report

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.

“Today, if you’re not literate in technology, along with the ability to read, you’re going to have a hard time in life,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.

If tech literacy is essential to the best jobs of the future, then it is incumbent upon educators to ensure that all kids have the tools they need to succeed. Many kids will only be exposed to this technology in a public school. Even in relatively affluent areas, coding camps, programming clubs, and other STEM intensive activity is treated as elective or extracurricular. In less-resourced homes and schools, it can be absent entirely.

“As educators we have the moral obligation to give kids the opportunities they are not getting,” Fletcher said.

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