Nearly all schools have computer-based classes, but many don’t offer even foundational classes on programming, let alone advanced computing.
A 2022 study by the Code.org Advocacy Coalition found that 53.4% of Ohio high school students attend a school that offers foundational computer science classes such as basic programming. However, only 22% of urban school districts offered foundational computer science courses compared to 57% of suburban schools.
In 2019, Ohio was ranked 37th among all 50 states in the number of college computer science graduates, as a percentage of total college graduates at all levels (Kentucky was ranked 1st), and 44th in growth in number of computer science graduates over five years, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Ohio updates curriculum
Ohio recently invested heavily in changing this. Last month, the Ohio State Board of Education approved an updated Model Curriculum for Computer Science. The 400 pages of guidance for local districts recommends students as early as kindergarten learning to protect passwords and understand the basics of artificial intelligence, and high schoolers using cybersecurity concepts like cluster computing and quantum key distribution.
The change represents a dramatic update from previous educational standards, initiated by the state last year. Ohio currently has over 20,000 open computer science positions, said Bryan Stewart, workforce director at the Montgomery County Educational Service Center. As Ohio prepares to welcome tech manufacturing giants like Intel, that gap may get worse.
“That’s a question that we play with when we look at the future of Ohio’s workforce,” Stewart said. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘Will Dayton, will the Miami Valley be a haven for startups? Will we see tech companies born out of the minds of our kids?’ If we want that to be a reality, if we want venture capital to speed into Ohio, you can’t do that unless you teach kids about computer science.”
Stebbins High School in the Mad River School District takes a different approach. Many classes through the school’s Career Technology Program incorporate computer science in a tangential way, such as engineering and robotics, or graphic design and digital media. Students learn to work with several systems, such as SolidWorks, AutoCAD, and Adobe Photoshop, said Career Tech Director and Assistant Principal Jeff Berk.
“We also have career tech courses at our middle school,” Berk said, adding that the state of Ohio supports career tech education. “We are able to stay up to industry standards within all of our programs, and making sure our students are prepared, and what they’re going to see (in the workplace), they had the chance to see it here.”
In recent years, Mad River discontinued a cybersecurity career path based on lack of enrollment and student interest, Berk said, in favor of a Teacher Academy. However, juniors and seniors can also participate in the Tech Prep program, where students do hands-on IT work throughout the building, troubleshooting everything from printers to student laptops.
Obstacles to improvement
Improving computer science education faces several hurdles. One issue governments have grappled with is that the field evolves so quickly that it’s difficult for educators to keep up, even at the local level.
“I think we do the best we can. But computer science changes so quickly. It’s not like math where algebra is the same now as it was 100 years ago,” Schultz said. “Now we’ve got standard things like quantum computing and artificial intelligence and machine learning, things that weren’t even spoken of five years ago. So it’s tough for schools, tough for anybody with a limited budget, to try and stay on top of that.”
The State Committee on Computer Science, formed by this year’s state budget, outlined 10 recommendations in August that, if implemented, would help make Ohio a “national leader in computer science education and workforce pipeline,” state officials said. Among these include a commitment by the state to fund computer science courses at 1% of the K-12 funding formula, about $94 million today, in future years, as well as making a single credit computer science course a high school graduation requirement.
Funding is important because hardware that educators have access to sometimes lags behind what is used in the industry, Berk said.
“A lot of times in education, the access to technology that students have sometimes is outdated,” he said. “That’s one of the major challenges. Especially in high school, when they go out into to the workforce, that they’re having that opportunity to work with machines and computers that are going to be at the same level
Finding teachers is also huge problem, as often individuals who are qualified to teach the next generation about computer science have no financial incentive to do so.
“The majority of them realize that they can go out and find a job in the industry and make double what they would make as a teacher,” said Schultz.
Minorities, girls lag
To address teacher shortages, the state committee recommended “Teach CS” grants that fund training for teachers to obtain computer science licensure, and establishing an Office of Computer Science to support the over 600 Ohio school districts in implementing their own computer science programs.
Stebbins’ Teacher Academy was created both to address the teacher shortage in the general K-12 sphere and supply a program that matched students’ interests, Berk said.
“We’re doing what we can do to help supply the region with the workers that we need for all the different professions,” he said.
The state’s Model Curriculum also includes provisions for equitable access to computer science education. Schools in lower-income neighborhoods and schools with large numbers of minority students often offer only rudimentary user skills rather than problem-solving and computational thinking, according to the curriculum.
Among students who took the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam in 2020, only 6% of students were Black or African American, 16% were Hispanic or Latino and 0.5% were Native American, according to data from the College Board, which administers AP tests.
Female students are also underrepresented in high school computer science classes, accounting for just 34% of AP Computer Science Principles participants and 25% of AP Computer Science A participants, per College Board data. During the 2020-21 school year, female students accounted for only 27% of over 3,700 AP Computer Science exams taken in Ohio.
In order to reach female and minority students, the state board recommends using examples that are equally relevant to both males and females, and tying problems to students’ everyday lives.
Particularly for young learners and beginners, visual, block-based programming languages help address language and syntax barriers, according to state documents.
Getting more girls and minority students into coding is useful, not just for creating a diverse workforce, but for addressing the huge need for computer-savvy people in today’s industry. After-school programs like Girls Who Code also are working to bridge this gap, but the model curriculum aims to tackle these problems inside the classroom.
“Private sector companies, the industry side of things, they really want to see a more diverse workforce. But they’re never going to have them unless we start earlier and try to start breaking down some of these barriers or perceptions,” Stewart said.