Massachusetts Schools Strive to Increase Access to Coding Courses

Is HTML the language of the future?
Is HTML the language of the future? –Janaka

According to the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, the Bay State is home to more than 10,000 technology companies, representing over 20 percent of state GDP. Top-tier names like Google, Microsoft, and Oracle rely on local offices devoted to research and development. And Boston technology doesn’t just support these monoliths; CNN Money listed eight Massachusetts companies in their list of 100 Fastest-Growing Tech Companies.

Despite the myriad career opportunities, demand for trained computer programmers is not being met. Code.org, a site promoting the accessibility of computer science to all, reports that only 2.4 percent of college graduates majored in computer science, despite its consistent rank as one of the top paying degrees.

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Among other endorsements from household names, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is quoted saying “Our policy at Facebook is literally to hire as many talented engineers as we can find. There just aren’t enough people who are trained and have these skills today.’’

The dearth of Americans skilled in computer programming has led to the employment of thousands of foreign workers who do have the proper training. It’s a huge market that promises to keep expanding, and right now the nearly 250,000 students pursuing college degrees in Boston are largely missing the boat.

Change is underway, however. Around Massachusetts, bureaucrats, educators, and businessmen are teaming up to address this need. In 2012, Patrick joined state education officials and innovation school practitioners to launch the Innovation School Network. There are currently 28 approved Innovation Schools across the Commonwealth and another 27 in planning stages, according to a press release from the Governor’s office.

Alec Resnick, Director at Sprout & Co. told Boston.com about plans for one such establishment: Somerville STEAM Academy, a vocational lab school born through collaboration between Sprout & Co. and Somerville Public Schools.

Resnick explained that the school, which is slotted to open in Fall 2015 as of now, will cater to students who would be in eighth grade through seniors in high school, though there will not be clearly defined “grades’’ in the traditional sense.

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“Computers and computing technology are the future of the economy. There are gaps in the job market specifically with respect to women, Hispanic, and African American computer scientists,’’ said Resnick, “Our goal is to produce more software engineers; really create free thinkers not just add new classes.’’

Resnick is a member of the Digital Literacy and Computer Science Standards Task Force that is working to develop new standards for teaching computer science in Massachusetts schools. The task force fits into the broader aims of the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network (MassCAN), which advocates for greater access to technology education across the state.

In the wake of legislation brought before educators and law officials at Beacon Hill, MassCAN is teaming up with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DOESE). Current efforts are underway to analyze and update best practices for teaching technology, according to Jacqueline Reis, Media Relations Coordinator for the DOESE.

“We have quite a few opportunities planned for teachers to take advantage of in the form of invaluable professional development to prepare teachers to teach CS and integrate Computational Thinking, Problem solving and Computer Science units into the K-12 program,’’ Kelly Powers, Director of Computer Science Teacher Leadership with MassCAN, told Boston.com.

While these efforts to make computer science accessible to students, across the country some school systems are taking a more drastic approach. Last week Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel underscored his commitment to making computer science a requirement for Chicago high school graduates in the next three years.

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Chicago’s plan is more comprehensive than most. Massachusetts curriculum does not require computer coding classes; Resnick told Boston.com that the changes underway aim to improve accessibility, not make it compulsory for students.

“In general, Massachusetts tends to operate on a more locally controlled level, it’s less likely that we’ll see a blanket mandate from the state,’’ said Resnick, “Something like ¾ of American citizens are at an eighth grade reading level. If we have trouble performing when it comes to that kind of literacy, I’m hard-pressed to believe that mandating computer science literacy is something that will necessarily work in the sense of traditional implementation.’’

At the university level, computer science education mirrors the changes underway at the elementary and secondary school level. Schools like Harvard and Northeastern enable students to take a computer science as part of a general education requirement, but they do not designate computer science as its own box to be checked off. The same holds true for technical schools like MIT and WPI.

“In the past few years we have introduced an introductory course for non-majors that enrolls over 200 students. We’re seeing students recognize the value and importance in learning the material, but it’s certainly not required,’’ said Craig Wills, Department Head of Computer Science at WPI, “Courses should be so good that students see the value in taking them.’’

With respect to the upswing in K-12 technology education, Wills explained that while he does not expect students to have a background, it’s important that technology courses are made available at the elementary and secondary school level.

“I’ve done career sessions and my message is always that no matter what college you attend or what you major in, it is in your best interest to take computer science. Technology is pervasive in society; those who study it are working with people in other disciplines, it really affects all areas of society,’’ said Wills.

Pervasive indeed. Kids practically grow up with an iPad in hand, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone from 14-40 who isn’t on social media sites.

The question is whether users must necessarily be do-ers. Does logging onto hundreds of websites every day require knowledge of how they are made? Certainly from a business perspective, computer science is a burgeoning industry, but from a cultural standpoint, are we looking at a near future in which Americans are as fluent in binary as English? Until there’s an App that can tell the future, we’ll just have to wait and see.

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