To Bridge the Skills Gap, Focus On Improving Computer Science’s Image

Editor’s note: Alison Derbenwick Miller is the vice president of Oracle Academy where she and her team work to advance computer science education by driving student interest and skill development – regardless of gender or socioeconomic background – to help cultivate the next generation of technology innovators and business leaders.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that computer science education grapples with a stubborn image problem. And it’s one that we simply cannot afford to ignore any longer.

As information technology permeates nearly every aspect of our world today – from personal mobile devices to automated HR systems to the smart grid – it fuels a rapidly growing need for computer scientists. Many indicators clearly demonstrate that we are simply not keeping pace with demand. For example, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2020 there will be 1.4 million new computer science jobs. However, between current professionals and university students, we will only have 400,000 computer scientists trained to fill those roles.

In addition to the growing need for computer scientists, there is an increasing need for basic computer science literacy across all fields. With the shift to data-based decision-making for everything from traditional business marketing to local government and healthcare, a basic understanding of how computers work and process information, as well as a basic literacy in computer programming and data analysis, are rapidly becoming workplace essentials – if they’re not already.

But, we see a dearth of computer science courses (of all types) available in secondary schools. Today, only 10 percent of high schools offer computer science courses, and the number of introductory computer science courses has actually decreased by 17 percent since 2005, according to the College Board.

As this skills gap widens, it is set to emerge as a formidable economic security and social justice issue. While a complex challenge, an ever-widening skills gap is not inevitable, and we can take tangible and realistic steps today to begin to turn the tide. Schools, teachers, parents, government and industry must all be part of the solution.

Computer science is inherently challenging. As a result, it can be intimidating to many students who might be unable or unwilling to look beyond the mechanics of coding to the wonder of computer science’s real-world application in nearly every facet of our lives and communities — from mobile gaming apps to personalized medicine. Students have been taught that A’s and perfect test scores are the goal, while computer science demands trial, error and failure to achieve success.

Students have been taught that A’s and perfect test scores are the goal, while computer science demands trial, error and failure to achieve success.

Further, many students lack exposure to, and understanding of, the diverse range of opportunities and careers that computer scientists and those with computer science skills can have – it’s not just manipulating command lines on a computer screen, but analyzing how to make buildings more energy-efficient, helping to match homeless pets with families, developing robots to perform microsurgery, and more.

The limited reservoir of trained teachers also factors into the mix. According to the College Board, of the approximately 42,000 high schools in the United States, only 9 percent offered the AP computer science A course in 2013.

What can we do to turn the tide?

Make computer science a core K-12 curriculum element. It can take 25 years or more to create a computer scientist – from developing core analysis and problem-solving skills to achieving fluency in programming languages. As such, it is essential that computer science education become integrated in the K-12 curriculum.

For younger students, that includes teaching concepts like collaborative problem solving, critical thinking, and high-order creativity as part of math, science and language arts lessons. As students get older, they can use basic coding programs, like Alice or Greenfoot, to animate scenes from a book, or create a game to demonstrate understanding of math concepts. All of this builds a foundation in computer science and prepares students to take advanced programming courses in high school.

Make computer science approachable and accessible. Teachers, parents and administrators can help expand interest in computer science by making the subject more appealing to a wide range of students.  Help students understand the connection between computer science and their lives – how it helps them to register for classes at school, enables cell phones to function, and determines the ads they see online.

Currently, there is a significant lack of diversity among students electing to take computer science courses, which is contributing to the skills gap by limiting the available talent pool. Of the 30,000 students who took the AP computer science exam in 2013, fewer than 20 percent of those students were female, only 3 percent were African-American, and approximately 8 percent were Hispanic, according to the College Board.

Show success outside the classroom. It is important to show the diversity – in both people and career paths – that exists in the computer science careers to help drive student interest. This is particularly true for supporting female and minority student interest. Both industry and academia must highlight existing role models and actively encourage mentorships at the community level. Schools can bring in parents and professionals from the community who leverage computer science in their jobs to share with students how the skill can translate to a career.

Collaborate with business. Schools and industry should engage in an open dialogue to help ensure students are being taught the skills they will need to be competitive in the modern workforce. And, since schools can lack the funds, time, knowledge and/or resources to implement the tools, technology, and curriculum required to teach computer science, this open dialogue can enable industry to help bridge the funding and resources gap and restore investment in public education. Many times, companies already have education programs and other resources in place to help ensure students have the proper tools – and teachers have the proper training – to master these skills.

While implementing computer science in classrooms across the nation won’t happen overnight, teachers, administrators, state and local legislatures, and industry need to partner to create a long-term plan to help close the skills gap and ensure students are prepared for the jobs of tomorrow.

To ensure students are equipped with the right skills to support the evolving economy, we must begin to expose all students to the possibilities afforded by computer science and facilitate an open dialogue on necessary workforce skills between educators and employers. These steps can help increase overall investment in public education and help provide students from all backgrounds with a better opportunity to pursue quality jobs once they complete their education – whether that is as a computer scientist, a public servant, a healthcare provider, a musician, or something else.