High-tech educators

Wisconsin schools need more computer science teachers

Workforce development

Self-driving cars at the University of Wisconsin-Madison – one of 10 locations the U.S Department of Transportation designated as a proving ground for automated vehicle technologies – are just one part of the technology revolution we can’t afford to miss.

Kathleen Gallagher (Photo: Rick Wood)

Sensors are providing farmers with data about the effectiveness of different feed types and fertilizers. Humber River Hospital in Toronto is using robots to sort medication and deliver food to patients. The City of Chicago used predictive data analytics to improve by seven days the time it takes to discover restaurants with critical food inspection violations.

Critical to this potentially marvelous and slightly scary future: Our kids need the skills to thrive.

Autonomous vehicles, precision agriculture, and smart cities and hospitals all require computing know-how – and a lot of our kids, and even more of their teachers, haven’t got enough of it.

Nationally, 71 percent of all new science, technology, engineering and math jobs are in computer science, yet only 8 percent of STEM graduates are in computer science, according to Code.org, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding computer science.

Code.org also reports:

  • There are fewer AP exams taken in computer science in Wisconsin than in any other STEM subject area.
  • Only 60 Wisconsin high schools (12 percent of those with AP programs) offered the AP Computer Science course in 2015-’16.
  • Wisconsin’s universities in 2016 graduated just two new teachers prepared to teach computer science.

So we need to rev this up.

Two current efforts have great potential to help: TEALS and CS Discoveries.

TEALS was started in 2009 by Kevin Wang, a Microsoft software engineer. It partners computer science industry professionals with high school teachers to support introductory and Advanced Placement computer sciences classes.

Because TEALS is funded by Microsoft Philanthropies, the only cost to the schools is stipends for their volunteers. The big winners are students, who learn computational thinking, problem solving, programming and computer science concepts – all of which are applicable to a wide range of today’s and tomorrow’s jobs.

TEALS has produced dramatic results. In 2009, the year Wang started the program in the Seattle area, about the same number of high school students – 229 in Wisconsin and 255 in Washington – took the AP Computer Science exam in each state

By 2016, that number had grown to nearly 600 in Wisconsin, but exploded to nearly 2,000 in Washington. About half of those 2,000 Washington kids were at schools participating in TEALS.

Thirteen Wisconsin high schools began participating in TEALS this fall; nine are in northeast Wisconsin, where Microsoft president Brad Smith went to high school. Three are in Milwaukee and one is near Fond du Lac.

The Milwaukee Institute is helping TEALS grow its presence in Wisconsin.

CS Discoveries is a computer science survey course supported by Code.org. The class takes a broad view of computer science, covering topics like programming, physical computing and data.

Eleven Milwaukee Public Schools middle schools started offering CS Discoveries this fall. Teachers prepared for the curriculum by attending a five-day workshop in Philadelphia during the summer and four workshops held in Milwaukee on Saturdays during the school year.

Dennis Brylow, an associate professor of computer science at Marquette University and the point person for Marquette’s regional partnership with Code.org, is organizing that effort.

Brylow, who co-chaired the State Superintendent’s Computer Science Standards Writing Committee, is highly motivated by the idea of providing access to computer science education to more students in Wisconsin.

“What we have right now is a situation where really only the most affluent suburbs have access to computer science teachers and computer science courses,” Brylow said.

That means just a narrow portion of Wisconsin’s students ever consider studying computer science at a two-year or four-year college or technical school.

Students who’ve never been exposed to computer science often fail to realize it’s a field rife with opportunities to do cool stuff like write software, analyze security breaches, program and operate drones, repair networks and yes, develop video games.

“Computer science is about using the power of computers to solve human problems,” Brylow says.

Hopefully, TEALS and CS Discoveries will help many more Wisconsin kids realize that – and realize really big dreams, as well.

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