Despite strong current and projected future demand for computer science skills in nearly every field, most K-12 schools don’t offer computer science and most students don’t get exposure to it on any level, Code.org founder Hadi Partovi told a congressional panel last Thursday. Testifying before the House Science Subcommittee on Research and Technology hearing on “Private Sector Programs that Engage Students in STEM,” Partovi told the Members that the STEM crisis groups like Code.org are seeking to address is really a computing crisis, with “demand for computing professionals…about four times higher than all other occupations” and student participation rates in computer science lagging well behind.
“Half of all jobs in STEM fields will be in computing,” Partovi, said, “almost every job — medicine, law, business, and banking — increasingly requires foundational familiarity with computer science.” Code.org’s advocacy goals is to, “make computer science count,” to satisfy existing math or science graduation requirements; he pointed out that this goal runs into opposition because of legal and regulator requirements at the federal, state, and local levels. Adding computer science as a “core academic subject” in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is one step Congress could take, Partovi noted – a recommendation that seemed to find bipartisan support from the Members of the committee. There are other federal, state and local efforts to ensure that computer science is “at the table,” Mr. Partovi said, but more could be done.
He then explained Code.org’s Hour of Code campaign and its success: in December 2013, 20 million students participated in the program, which is 1 in 4 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and half of those students were girls. In summing up the participation numbers, “more students participated in computer science during Computer Science Education Week 2013 than had ever taken computer science in the history of our K-12 system.” And there is already a clear response, where, “in the past month, 10,000 teachers have signed up 500,000 students for the follow-on 20-hour, online Introduction to Computer Science course.” As he said later, this participation blows away many excuses for not teaching computer science in schools, such as that students couldn’t learn it, or that girls would not want to take part.
Partovi was joined on the panel by FIRST Robotics founder Dean Kamen, who echoed many of the points made by Partovi and other witnesses and emphasized that neither his organization or code.org were there looking for any Federal funding for their programs. “We aren’t asking for anything except to give kids access to these programs,” Kamen said. The resources and mentors are there, Kamen said, we just need to find a way to encourage schools to allow their students access to them.
The hearing was well attended by members of the committee, a good indication of interest in the subject matter (though the C-SPAN cameras may also have been a factor), and the questions posed were all generally supportive of the points raised by Partovi and the other witnesses at the hearing. Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) asked a question the echoed a theme heard throughout the hearing: “What can Congress do to improve the STEM workforce?” Partovi’s answer was simple: “the $3 billion STEM education investment by the Federal government needs to include computer science.” As he put it later, in response to a similar question from Representative Randy Hultgren (R-IL), “we need to put the T back into STEM.” Questions by other members focused on how the Federal government could help with broadening engagement and retaining student interest in computer science. Partovi said that there are multiple problems with engagement; the most significant are that for women it is a cultural problem of seeing computer science as not being for girls, while for minorities it is mainly an availability problem. And then finished saying that making it fun will help with retaining students.
In addition to Partovi and Kamen, the panel included Kemi Jona, Director of the Office of STEM Education Partnerships at Northwestern University, and Phillip Cornwell, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. You can read their testimony in full at the subcommittee’s website. There also was a second panel of secondary school students (our original post about the hearing mistakenly identified them as educators) who were participants in the FIRST program. The students spoke on the experiences they gained from the program and how it has impacted their student careers.
While the Science Committee doesn’t have jurisdictional access to all the relevant levers that need to be pulled to make serious change to computer science’s stature in Federal STEM policies, the attention paid to the subject – and the number of Members at the hearing who indicated they would sign on to the Computer Science Education Act – should help advance these issues even further.