Steve Jobs once called computer science a liberal art.
The now-deceased co-founder and CEO of Apple may have been ahead of the times more than 20 years ago when he suggested that everybody should be exposed to computer science and it shouldn’t be “relegated to 5 percent of the population over in the corner.”
But the grim statistics of available jobs versus qualified people to fill those jobs in Alabama alone prove that he knew what he was talking about.
There are 4,847 open computing jobs in Alabama right now, but only 450 computer science graduates in the state. In fact, the majority of schools in Alabama don’t even teach computer science, even though the average salary for computing jobs – $80,402 – is double the average salary of $40,890.
Code.org, a national organization focused on increasing access to computer science education, is investing $500,000 to build on Alabama’s efforts to expand computer science courses in K-12 classrooms across the state. The investment will double the number of Alabama teachers qualified and trained to teach computer science in the state’s public schools.
“Computing is a part of every single thing we do today – it’s in our cars, our radios, our smart watches, our GPS systems – having an understanding of it is critical,” said Mary Boehm, president of A+ College Ready. “It’s as important as knowing what your circulatory system looks like. … Coding is the new biology. Schools don’t know what to do with this; it’s not something they know where to put in their curriculum.”
Computer science courses – including an Advanced Placement course that can count toward college credit – will be expanded to about 100 Alabama schools by 2018, Boehm said.
There are two main reasons so few students take computer science courses, Boehm said. The first is because teachers don’t feel confident in stepping up to teach the course, which she said professional development training offered through this partnership will combat. The second, she said, is because students fear the entire course will be about learning Java script or some other high-level programming language, which she admitted can be boring.
An AP Computer Science Principles course is being added to the curriculum to give students more of an overview of computer science. In fact, only 20 percent of the course involves programming/scripting, said Jake Baskin, director of district management at Code.org. The rest is more about the Internet, data and algorithms. By the end of the course, students will know how the Internet works, how to design mobile web apps and how to work with data digitally, he said.
A+ College Ready has worked with the University of Alabama and a select group of Alabama teachers to help pilot the AP Computer Science Principles course. The initial goal is to have more than 2,500 Alabama students enrolled in this course over the next two years.
Nidia Fernandez-Lee is one of 50 teachers across the state piloting the computer science principles course this semester. Lee is a math teacher at Shades Valley High School in Jefferson County.
“Technology is embedded in everything we do so it’s really important that this generation understand it,” she said. “They can play video games and use Snap Chat but it’s important for them to know how technology can be used to change the world.”
Code.org estimates that by 2022, more than two-thirds of all new jobs in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields will be computing occupations.
“There is a misconception that this is stuff only computer programmers need to know,” Baskin said. “But there is no field in which computer science isn’t needed, whether you’re working in green energy and needing to be able to predict weather patterns, or doing animation like Pixar, which is done completely through computers. It’s in every facet of every occupation.”
James Brandon, a senior at Shades Valley High School, wants to study architecture. Gone are the days when schematics and designs are drawn by hand, he said.
“It’s all designed on a computer now,” he said. ”I’ve always been interested in engineering and architecture and this class is giving us a background in computer science.”
A+ College Ready is still recruiting teachers to take part in the Code.org initiative. Teacher training will begin this summer and about 15 slots are still available. Interested Alabama teachers should contact Melissa Crook at A+ College Ready; [email protected].