A major goal of a minority awareness group I am involved in, Women in Computer Science (WiCS), is increasing interest in computer science among young girls. Unfortunately, as I shared about my personal experiences in "The Need for Computer Science Education", there is often a lack of opportunity to pursue this newfound interest once that goal is achieved. Even in the silicon hills of Austin, the chances to take a computer science course are disappointingly few because of slow-moving political challenges.
The largest of these challenges is the question of how to fit computer science into high school curriculum requirements. According to Jake Stephens, the president of the Central Texas Computer Science Teacher’s Association (CSTA), AP computer science can only count as a student’s 4th year math credit. However, the same students who are interested in computer science are often the ones already taking calculus their senior year to prepare for university requirements, so this credit offers no benefit. Texas recently passed an initiative allowing computer science to instead count as a foreign language requirement, but at a recent meeting in GDC during the UIL programming contest, the CSTA identified that, once again, this policy fails to consider university standards with regards to foreign language requirements. They argue that, ideally, AP computer science would have the flexibility to count as either a 4th year math or science, considering its cross-disciplinary applications in both fields. However, the State Board of Education responded back that “Students given a choice between different requirements would create too many complications logistically for districts.”
The biggest losers in this political standoff are the current high school students. With 16 high schools in AISD, the only standard public high school that offers a computer science curriculum is Anderson, and another two are made up of the Liberal Arts and Science Academy magnet school and Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. Slightly more progressive are the northern districts of Round Rock ISD and Leander ISD, all of which offer high school AP computer science according to Mr. Stephens, but still suffer from the statewide curriculum credit issues.
Fortunately, a growing number of grassroots efforts exist to push past these bureaucratic barriers. UTCS itself has a huge influence in Austin with programs like the aforementioned University Interscholastic League (UIL) annual programming contests and First Bytes, which offers separate summer workshops for CS educators and 60 STEM-focused high school girls. The First Bytes workshop for high school girls is fully sponsored and serves to increase the interest and awareness of computer science in girls who will then share their experiences with their classmates and families at its conclusion, hopefully catching their attention and garnering even more interest in the field. Once these students and parents raise enough demand for the school’s administration to realize the need, the school can contact UTCS with assistance in getting started with offering a curriculum. According to Dr. Calvin Lin and Bradley Beth, leads of UTCS’s Project Engage outreach program, Bowie High School in south Austin recently contacted UTCS for exactly this purpose and is working on creating their own program.
This is also the perfect time for UTCS undergraduates to take on the rewarding experience of teaching themselves. Mr. Stephens, himself a computer science graduate who worked in industry for a while before deciding to pursue the more rewarding career of teaching, notes that the success of a high school’s attempts at offering a computer science curriculum rests largely upon the teacher. UT’s own UTeach program offers a certification in computer science for students up to the challenge and has already certified 15 students, according to UTeach administrator Brett Westbrook.
Additionally, Mr. Stephens mentions that current entrepreneurial undergraduates could help with this critical need even today by creating extracurricular activities or mentoring programs that connect current UTCS students with local high school students. Some of the most widely known names in computer science are of individuals who identified a critical gap and provided a solution, whether it be Gates’ personal computer or Zuckerberg’s social network. Although perhaps less glamorous, yet far more rewarding, computer science education currently faces its critical gap between the increase in demand and the ability to fulfill it, and current computer science college students have the opportunitiy to play an integral role in the solution.