Why Big Names and Big Money Are Backing Greater Access to Computer Science


Why Big Names and Big Money Are Backing Greater Access to Computer Science

By Tina Nazerian     Dec 4, 2017

Why Big Names and Big Money Are Backing Greater Access to Computer Science
Sheryl Sandberg speaking at the Code.org event Monday.

California’s Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom thinks his state is falling behind when it comes to requiring computer science in all of its high schools.

“It’s time to move away from downloading apps, to have our kids start designing apps,” he told an audience at the College of San Mateo, south of San Francisco.

Newsom was just one of the high-profile speakers Monday at an event hosted by Code.org to commence its Computer Science Education Week, an annual program “dedicated to inspiring K-12 students to take interest in computer science,” per Code.org’s website. This year, it runs from December 4 to 10.

At the state level, Newsom has launched CSforCA, a new campaign that wants to give all students in California access to high-quality computer science education by 2025. And according to Code.org CEO Hadi Partovi, he’s not alone.

Eight states, 76 school districts and 102 organizations worldwide have pledged to expand computer science education, Code.org said in a statement. Among them are Arkansas, whose governor recently pledged $500,000 to a computer science stipend program for K-8 teachers, and Florida, whose new budget recommends a one-time investment of $15 million for the cause. Governors in Alabama, Indiana, Montana and Pennsylvania are joining a coalition called Governor’s Partnership for K-12 Computer Science, which works to advance policy, funding and equity for computer science education. For its part, Code.org has received $12 million in new funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Infosys Foundation USA and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Organizations and governments from outside the United States have gotten involved too, such as Kodea, which Code.org says has pledged to help every school in Chile teach computer science and to support the expansion of computer science in other countries that are part of Latin America’s Pacific Alliance. Ecuador’s Ministry of Education’s Digital Education has also set what it terms “Agenda 2017-21” to integrate digital teaching and learning into the national education system.

Removing the Luck Factor

Putting money into computer science education is one thing, but making sure every student has equitable access to it is quite another, as evidenced by several successful women in the technology industry who spoke at the event.

Peggy Johnson, Microsoft’s executive vice president of business development, talked about how computer science “almost was an accident” for her—originally, she was supposed to get a business degree. One day she had to deliver a package to the engineering department for her on campus job. When she walked in, she got into a conversation with the two executive assistants behind the desks. Johnson said those two assistants had just been discussing how they could get more women into engineering. They asked her if she’d ever considered seeking a degree in engineering. At the time Johnson didn’t even really know what engineers really did.

“These two ladies just started working on me, and working on me, and I remember something that still resonates with me today. They said, ‘The world will be your oyster if you pursue engineering.’”

Johnson said the next morning, she changed her major to engineering, adding that she was in her classes by “pure luck” because of the package that she’d dropped off.

“And frankly, the issue is that for too many of our young women today, for too many of our young people of color, for too many young people altogether, luck is still too much a part of the equation,” Johnson said.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki also discussed how she got into computer science. She has a degree in history and literature, and her senior year in college, she interned “by accident” at a startup, where she was answering the phone. The experience convinced her to sign up for a computer science course, an opportunity she believes should be available to all students.

“I was very lucky to take this class, but in today’s world where technology is changing every single thing we do, it shouldn’t be about matter of luck,” Wojcicki said.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who also spoke at the event, stressed that jobs in technology are “incredibly high impact, incredibly high paying and incredibly flexible.”

“And when you think about what people entering the workforce want, they really want the ability to make a difference, and I think all of us in this room know that there’s probably no better field to do that than the field of technology,” she said.

Sandberg also said that in increasingly uncertain economic times, people want job stability. And regardless of what’s happening in any economy anywhere in the world, those with “more than full employment” are the people with technical degrees. She said there’s a huge gap in unfilled technology jobs both in this country and around the world.

Sandberg also said that jobs in technology are almost always the most flexible jobs, which allows employees to have both a personal and professional life.

Sandberg stressed that we have to think about getting everyone involved in this field, not just the “usual suspects.”

Required Coding?

After the main event, four educators representing districts that have already implemented a K-12 computer science pathway spoke on a panel moderated by Carina Box, Code.org’s director of outreach. Among the topics discussed was what’s mandatory and what isn’t when it comes to computer science in their districts.

The consensus: there’s no hard and fast rule. In Florida’s Broward County Public Schools, nothing’s mandatory at the district level, while Claire Shorall of Oakland Unified School District said computer science is mandatory for students in sixth through ninth-grades.

When asked by EdSurge during the Q&A about where she personally draws the line between encouraging people to learn computer science, and recognizing that not everyone has that interest, Shorall said she’s fully behind asking students to complete some computer science education because all students deserve to learn how to think that way. She thinks kids can learn problem solving and computational thinking through other media, but computer science is a “brilliant and really accessible” way to achieve that.

“I would say, sixth through ninth grade, I feel really great about putting every kid in computer science,” Shorall said. “I think there’s a lot of identity formation at that time, and one of the ways we’re pushing ourselves is to think about all the different avenues that kids can come at computer science that honor their interests and honor the other skills that they bring.”

Editor's note: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funder of EdSurge.

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