In Pennsylvania, thanks to a law passed last summer, computer science coursework in all public and charter high schools can count toward either math or science graduation requirements.
The state joins 19 others with similar policies, according to the Education Commission of the States. Several other states also allow computer science (CS) credit to count as math or science but without a law mandating it.
Code.org notes that the number of states counting CS toward math or science requirements has nearly tripled since 2013. In large part these policies are responding to a rapidly changing workforce—and young people’s lack of preparation for it.
Computer science and information technology jobs are expected to grow , even outpacing similar scientific and technical industries as a whole. Pennsylvania currently has approximately 17,000 unfilled computer science and software development job openings, notes the Pennsylvania Department of Education in its guidelines for implementing the new law. But in 2014, the state had just 2,820 CS graduates. Only one in five were women. Many times, these jobs go unfilled because students lack the requisite skills.
“We need to make sure our [students’] skill sets are aligned with workforce demand,” Linda Topoleski, vice president of Workforce Programs and Operations at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, told Remake Learning last fall.
There are many reasons students are not prepared for these positions. The legislators who wrote the new Pennsylvania policy believe that one reason is CS courses are not valued in schools. Many students have historically declined to take advanced placement computer science, for example, because it was counted only as an elective despite the heavy math and science content.
Yet it is important that public schools offer CS courses because they are the most accessible venues for many. Both people of color and women are under-represented in the tech and STEM workforces, and access to CS education early on can create a stronger pipeline for those groups.
Despite growth in the overall black and Latino college-going population (a 240 percent increase for Hispanics and 72 percent for blacks, between 1996 to 2012), their representation in the computing workforce has remained fairly stagnant, at 14 percent, according to Change the Equation. And at top high-paying companies, the portion of black and Latino employees is even lower. In 2016 blacks made up 2 percent of Google’s U.S. workforce, and Latinos 3 percent. Female representation in the overall field has also remained unchanged and disproportionately low at 26 percent.
For many students of all demographics, all the access and encouragement in the world would still not make them inclined to pursue a CS job. But many educators and technologists believe all learners can benefit from coursework in the field, which can build problem-solving skills and allow for creative expression.
Take coding—“not just a set of technical skills,” according to MIT computer scientist Mitch Resnick, who developed the programming language Scratch for children. “It’s similar to learning to write—a way for kids to organize, express, and share ideas.”
The Obama administration promoted computer science education for all students, saying the interdisciplinary, applied subject “allows students to engage in hands-on, real-world interaction with key math, science, and engineering principles.”
Laws like Pennsylvania’s help improve students’ exposure to CS. But the policy only addresses schools that already provide that coursework. According to Change the Equation, the disparities in access to these classes start early: only approximately one-half of all black and Latino students attend schools with CS classes. Efforts like Pennsylvania’s are steps forward in the longer road to addressing the root causes of these gaps.