Mention “computer science” to a large swath of people, and they’ll think of Sheldon and Leonard, the two science geek characters in TV’s Big Bang Theory.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
Rather than confined simply to information technology companies, those with computer science skills are in high demand, whether to design and improve products in manufacturing, develop monitoring and record systems for patients in health care, analyzing data to predict trends in retail, or in hundreds of other industries and careers. In fact, 67 percent of computing jobs are outside of the “tech sector.”
In just seven years, the nation will see 1.4 million computing jobs available, but only 400,000 Computer Science graduates able to claim them. That gap of one million jobs, at average salaries of $80,000 per year, is a $440 billion opportunity American students are leaving on the table. Indeed, even for students with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) qualifications, 60 percent of the job openings are computing jobs – but less than 2.4 percent of college graduates have a computer science degree. And that number has actually dropped since the last decade.
Graduating students with computing skills is an economic development issue, and growing the number of graduates with those high-demand skills is vital to Virginia’s economic future.
Exposure to computer science is also important for students, even if they never enter the field. A rigorous high school computer science course focuses around big ideas including creativity, abstraction, data, and impact – just the sort of “critical thinking” concepts now in demand. Computer Science courses don’t just show students how to use new technologies: They show them how to create those technologies. And the College Board notes that studying AP Computer Science can open the path to 130 career areas and 48 college majors.
Governor Bob McDonnell has declared next week (December 9-12) “Computer Science Education Week,” underscoring how far ahead of the curve the Old Dominion is compared to other states.
For example, one way to interest students in computer science is to offer them early exposure. But crowded schedules often preclude taking a course unless it satisfies an existing graduation requirement for math or science. Virginia is, proudly, one of only 14 states to “count” Computer Science towards a students’s required coursework.
Virginia is also one of the few states offering a teaching “endorsement” in computer science, providing a clear, navigable and rewarding pathway for those who want to become computer science teachers in K-12 classrooms. And Virginia is in the minority of states that have established discrete computer science standards (or “Computer Math”). Adding to that the establishment of 22 STEM Academies around the state where technology is an important component, and the “Old Dominion” is prepared to be the “New Dominion.”
The challenge now is to get students enrolled in these courses. Fewer than one in five Virginia high schools offer an AP Computer Science course. And AP Computer Science exams represent just one percent of all AP exams taken in Virginia last year, with only 854 students passing the AP Computer Science test.
One way to close the gap is the increasing involvement of employers themselves through increased public-private partnerships. A pilot program in Loudoun County called TEALS – Technology Education And Literacy in Schools – made that school system the 18th in the nation to place high tech professionals in high school computer science classes. Employees from companies like Microsoft, Telos Corporation and NEPO Systems spend part of their time in the classroom, not only teaching the course but evangelizing about the opportunities available in the field. Microsoft alone, for example, has more than 3,400 computer science-related job openings.
Yet another opportunity to expose students to computer science has been Computer Science Education Week’s “Hour of Code.” More than 3.5 million students (and adults) in 161 countries have signed up to take a one-hour introduction to computer science designed to demystify “code” and demonstrate that anyone can write their first computer program. Their online one-minute video promotion offers endorsements from a couple of folks named “Bill” (Microsoft) and “Mark” (Facebook) who can testify to it, as well as a few like “Will.i.am” (Black-eyed Peas) who appreciate its importance to their industry.
Coding starts simple, but it can lead to something big: “Elena” notes in the video that her first program was to make “a green circle and a red square.” She went on to found Clothia.com, an online fashion site that allows you to put your body online and then try on the clothes virtually before you buy.
We’re still waiting for the computer program that will help us “virtually” shed a few pounds and look better in those clothes. But we shouldn’t be surprised if the person who designs it will be someone who got his or her first exposure to computer science during next week’s Hour of Code.