Computer science dilemma: a stand-alone or part of STEM?

Computer science dilemma: a stand-alone or part of STEM?

(Calif.) Computer science curriculum is being pushed at virtually every school district in the U.S.–but a fundamental question continues to slow development:

Whether it should be taught as a standalone subject or be integrated into math and science courses.

The question is being asked in many states, most recently in California–home to Silicon Valley–where members of the State Board of Education left it unanswered at their regular meeting earlier this month

“Like many things in education, it’s complicated, and it depends on a variety of factors–the grade level, who can be found to teach it, what materials a school already has, or the goals of the district even,” said Pat Yongpradit, chief academic officer at Code.org, who presented a K-12 computer science framework to the California board. “It’s not an either/or situation, but rather, a district decision based on numerous factors, and states are grappling with that,” he said in an interview following the meeting.

More than 600,000 high-paying tech jobs across the United States went unfilled last year, and by 2018, 51 percent of all STEM jobs are projected to be in computer science-related fields, according to federal data. As part of Barack Obama’s Computer Science for All initiative, $4 billion in funding was made available to states to expand K-12 computer science through professional development and increasing access to high-quality instructional materials.

In California, more than 86,000 computing jobs are currently open in the state, but only 25 percent of K-12 schools teach any computer science, according to Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord. She authored legislation last year that requires the state to convene a computer science advisory committee to develop an implementation plan for the new standards. The question of how that panel should proceed was in play before the State Board of Education earlier this month.

Board member Ting Sun raised what Yongpradit said is a common point among other state officials and school boards–whether or not computer science should or should not be integrated into similar subjects.

“Computer science isn’t just math and it’s not just science–it’s also literacy, and critical thinking, and there are a lot of other pieces involved in this that I think is broad and can be integrated,” Sun said during the meeting. “So as we’re looking at implementation, it would behoove the committee to look at how computer science is actually integrated across the different subject areas, and how it can be incorporated into all the other content areas.”

Board member Trish Williams disagreed, and noted that although computer science could be integrated with other subjects, it is its own academic discipline and ought to be taught as such.

Indeed, computer science is its own academic discipline, with core concepts that include computing systems, such as hardware, software and use of devices; networks and the Internet; handling of data and analysis, which is done differently than in science and math; algorithms and coding; and the societal impacts of computing.

According to Yongpradit, while those concepts are distinct, they do not necessarily have to be taught separately from math or science. Choices regarding implementation should usually be made at the district level after taking into consideration local factors including the availability of a teacher who can take on a standalone computer science course, technological infrastructure and other resources at the school sites, or even the district’s goals in offering science, technology, engineering and math coursework, he said.

There are a handful of states further into the process of adopting and implementing computer science standards could serve as positive examples in terms of how to proceed, according to Yongpradit.

In Virginia, education officials are working to integrate computer science standards into its existing K-12 Standards for Learning, and implement them by fall 2017. The state’s biennial budget includes $550,000 per year to support teacher professional development in the subject.

On the other hand, high schools in Arkansas will be required to offer at least one rigorous standalone computer science course, and standards for K-12 are in development for the 2017-18 school year. Lawmakers included $5 million in the state’s 2015 budget to help districts with computer science education expansion needs.

And while Washington does not yet require all schools to provide access to standalone computer science courses in high school, the legislature did allocate $2 million in funding to expand access during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years. A statewide stakeholder committee is currently reviewing the recently developed standards.