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August 4, 2014

Computer Science Education Act Hits Critical Milestone

Tiffany Trader
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As the saying goes, to outcompete, a nation or business must out-compute. An explosion in the number of computationally-driven disciplines has created a huge demand for highly-trained scientists and engineers. Congress is currently considering a bill that would help bridge the skills gap and bolster national competitiveness.

The Computer Science Education Act (HR 2536) seeks to make computer science a core competency by strengthening elementary and secondary computer science education. While science and engineering were hallmarks of innovation over the 19th and 20th centuries, what sets the 21st century apart is the rise of information technology and the knowledge-based economy. As the bill’s authors point out, computer science drives the information technology sector of the United States, which is a key contributor to the economic output of the nation.

Last week, the bill hit at tipping point, reaching the level of 100 supporters from both sides of the aisle, making it the most broadly cosponsored education bill in the House. At last count, 60 Republicans and 52 Democrats had signed on as co-sponsors.

The news prompted Code.org COO Cameron Wilson to blog:

“Even in a polarized Congress, computer science education has momentum and bipartisan backing.”

The act, which was introduced by Representatives Susan Brooks (R-IN) and Jared Polis (D-CO) on June 27, 2013, makes computer science a core academic subject by amending title IX (General Provisions) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

Under the amendment, “computer science” is defined as the study of computers and algorithmic processes, including the study of computing principles, computer hardware and software design, computer applications, and the impact of computers on society.

The folks at Code.org are working hard to bring attention to this bill, which is cost-neutral and doesn’t introduce new programs or mandates.

“[The bill] removes barriers that make it harder for states to use Federal funding for computer science education,” explains Wilson, and “clarifies that federal programs can fund computer science programs and can support local educators who want to put computer science in our schools.”

The full text presents a list of findings that argue in favor of stronger computer science education, including the following:

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that there will be 9,200,000 jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics by the year 2020. Half of these, or 4,600,000 jobs, will be in computing.
  • In the 2012-2013 school year, only nine states allowed computer science courses to count toward secondary school core graduation requirements, chilling student interest in computer science courses.
  • While students who take the College Board’s AP computer science test are eight times more likely to major in computer science in college, in 2011, only 1 percent of all AP exams were in computer science. The test also highlighted the STEM gender gap with male test-takers outnumbering females by four to one.

A curriculum framework that would support the goals of this bill already exists. The Association for Computing Machinery and the Computer Science Teachers Association established a four-part, grade-appropriate framework of standards for computer science education to guide local and state efforts. The first part (Level I), intended for K-8, focuses on basic computer literacy skills. There is also a second and third level, and even an optional fourth level for advanced high school learners.

The backers of the “Computing in the Core” curriculum write:

“After completing any of these courses, students have useful and marketable knowledge and skills. The highest-level courses will impart very specific skills, including the ability to design and implement solutions to problems by writing, running, and debugging computer programs, the ability to use and implement commonly‐used algorithms and data structures, and to develop and select appropriate algorithms and data structures to solve problems. While these skills may sound highly technical, they teach core critical thinking skills that young people need to be successful – in computing or any field – in the 21st Century.”

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