By Edwin L. Aguirre
The future of numerous industries – from health care to energy – depends on skilled computer science professionals. That’s the message that educators heard at a recent conference focused on strengthening computer science education in grades K–12.
“Currently, we have an abundance of demand for computer science graduates and insufficient supply,” said Massachusetts Secretary of Education James Peyser, who delivered one of the keynote addresses at the first Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) New England Regional Conference, which was held at UMass Lowell on Oct. 28. “There’s a lot of opportunities for these graduates from a job or career point of view. We need to have more students to pursue this field to fill the demand, grow businesses and attract more companies like Amazon.”
The daylong meeting drew 80 educators from across Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine and New York and provided them with the inspiration and tools they need to teach elementary, middle and high school students to become literate in computer science.
“People had a great experience on our campus, connecting to each other and learning about the state of K–12 computer science education nationally and locally,” said computer science Prof. Fred Martin, who is associate dean of student success in the Kennedy College of Sciences and chair of the CSTA’s board of directors.
“It’s very appropriate that UMass Lowell hosted the conference because of the university’s strong commitment to technology education in general and computer science and engineering in particular,” said Peyser.
In his talk, Peyser described how K–12 computer science education is at a turning point. He pointed out that in the past, it was the individual inspired teacher who brought computer science to his or her school, but now the innovations will be driven by superintendents and their school boards establishing whole-district adoptions.
“Computer science education is important to the Commonwealth not only because of our state’s large and growing technology sector, but that the knowledge and problem-solving skills acquired in computer science are also applicable to all sectors of our economy,” Peyser noted. “The need is everywhere.”
The conference featured sessions and panel discussions covering topics such as how to develop engaging lesson plans for students and incorporate computer science to fashion, art, engineering and robotics, as well as internships, cybersecurity and ethics. Anne DeMallie, computer science and STEM integration specialist at the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, led a presentation on the statewide teacher licensure process, while the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network, or MassCAN, led by James Stanton of the Education Development Center Inc., released its K–12 Computer Science Curriculum Guide, a resource for the state’s school superintendents. It is a detailed index to more than 30 nationally recognized K–12 computer science curricula, including the “Middle School Pathways in Computer Science” program that Martin developed in collaboration with the Everett and Medford school districts.
“I had an amazing time and was able to bring back a lot of ideas and information to my district,” said Ryan Robidoux, a computer science instructor at Old Colony Regional Vocational Technical High School in Rochester.
No Longer an IT Problem
“The 21st-century world economy is highly dependent on a workforce with this expertise, and to be competitive internationally, we need to be leaders in computer science education,” said Steve Vinter, Google’s executive coach and tech leadership development adviser, who was also a keynote speaker.
“Our educational system has struggled to find ways of teaching that are really engaging. Computer science has a wonderful quality that allows you to build things as you learn. It’s a very engaging experience that could be transformational for a lot of kids.”
Vinter noted that job prospects for computer science graduates have changed over the years.
“When I first started, computer science was a tech industry need, and now it’s a need that spans every business sector,” he said. “For example, if you look at the biotech community, which I am embedded in at Kendall Square in Cambridge, they have more difficulty hiring computer scientists than they do hiring biologists. We now have an incredible need to apply computing to the core businesses of so many industry sectors. Whereas before, it used to be an IT problem – the problem is still there – the biotech industry’s biggest challenge is how to apply computing resources to figure out how personalized medicine can solve problems. It is at the core of their business; it’s no longer an IT problem.”
Vinter added: “Every industry you can think of shares this challenge. Whether it’s healthcare, the financial industry, professional baseball or drilling for oil – the need does not end. Computing is a fundamental advantage in every business.”