At 8:30 a.m. Monday in House Room "B," the members of the House Education Committee will decide whether Virginia will take one more step in the long legislative journey to ensure that our students will have the educations they need to help make Virginia a 21st Century jobs creator, rich with high-tech promise as a leader in business, technology and science.
A bill before this year’s Virginia General Assembly seeks to increase the number of kids taking computer science. House Bill 1054, patroned by Richmond Republican Manoli Loupassi, is co-patroned by about two-dozen fellow legislators representing a broad, bipartisan mix. Richmond Democrat Delores McQuinn stands shoulder-to-shoulder on this bill with Northern Virginia conservative Republican Bob Marshall.
The bill’s aim is simple, but its effects could well be profound.
In a nutshell, it allows computer science classes to count toward graduation requirements in any of three categories: Math, Career Technical Education (CTE) or Science. Currently, computer science already hypothetically counts toward Math or CTE.
But in reality, computer science in Virginia classrooms rarely gets counted at all.
Computer science -- the science of problem solving and computational thinking, and the language of nearly all modern science and technology fields -- remains the redheaded stepchild of public education in Virginia.
Computer science is not PowerPoint or Excel. It’s not computer networking.
It is the art and science of making a computer think, of creating environments and laboratories inside the virtual world of a computer’s CPU. It is the engine of the modern world around us.
Rather than recognize the importance of this core subject, Virginia has instead taken steps that unintentionally stifled both ability and incentive in nearly all state school districts to offer even a single class in computer science.
Let’s talk about unintended consequences:
Within the last five years, the Virginia Department of Education, seeking to close what it saw as a loophole in graduation requirements, disallowed computer science as a math credit substituting for geometry. This meant Virginia districts could no longer ‘sidestep’ geometry, a class education policymakers saw as a vital math class.
Seeming justification of the change is that the effect still allows computer science to count as a math credit -- but only for students in the top of their class and most frequently only if they chose to pursue the AP computer science class.
Is that an unintended consequence? Today you could count on your fingers the number of urban and rural school districts offering computer science classes. Add your toes and you’ve got the number of African American females statewide who will take a computer science class this year. Borrow five friends and you’ve got enough digits to count how many African Americans statewide took the AP computer science exam last year.
In a nutshell, there no longer is any diploma incentive to offer computer programming as a math class for anyone but a small percentage of Virginia students.
And what of CTE? These departments are shrinking statewide, as districts facing budget crunches seek to trim non-core expenses.
HB 1054 mandates nothing. It is revenue neutral in that it requires no locality or state agency to spend new money. In addition to allowing school districts to consider computer science classes as math or CTE credits, the bill allows them also to choose to count computer science as a science elective credit.
Seems like a no-brainer. But it’s not.
Critics of HB 1054 suggest it might curtail enrollment in science electives. Suddenly that student who’d have taken biology, earth science and chemistry will now pick computer science instead of astronomy as their fourth science. But who was to say this student would take astronomy anyway? And if he or she did, what’s to say the class would have helped them to further their future once they graduated and decided to major in chemistry?
So who’s to say computer science would help them?
How about industry, for one? Indeed, they’re saying it loud and clear -- if only education policymakers would hear.
The expansion afforded by HB 1054 simply acknowledges changes in all science fields that currently threaten to leave Virginia workers by the wayside nationally and internationally.
One argument against HB 1054 is that computer science is not a science.
The International Baccalaureate (IB), a popular internationally-regulated advanced diploma program offered in many prestigious Virginia school districts, and more recently the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which represents more than 1,200 institutions and organizes the athletic programs of many colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, now both recognize computer science first and foremost as a science.
For the NCAA, computer science now automatically is considered a science toward student-athlete entrance requirements.
In the case of IB, it is a science credit toward graduation. It does not count as a math. And by Virginia not recognizing it as such, it is possible that a student receiving their IB diploma (one that all but guarantees admission to prestigious universities worldwide) do not meet requirements for a Virginia advanced diploma.
Consider the number and types of jobs available today in Virginia that rely on computer science. Currently, in Northern Virginia alone, more than 30,000 computer science jobs remain unfilled. Of all STEM field jobs -- that is, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics -- more than 70 percent of those jobs, whether they be pharmaceutical jobs, NASA aeronautical engineers, astronomers or banking industry networking professionals, are computer programming jobs.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be more than 1.4 million computer-programming jobs available by 2020. And the two places in the country that have the highest percentage of those jobs are, you guessed it, Virginia and Washington D.C.
Sadly, at our current rate of promoting computer science to high school and college students, there will be just 400,000 students nationwide ready to fill those jobs.
At least those students will still be ready to step into STEM field jobs, right? After all, so many high schools now are concentrating on STEM education initiatives.
Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics -- STEM -- is the current buzz term du jour in education circles. But it’s the buzz that was, unless Virginia acts fast to implement a computer science curriculum in public schools. STEM alone is just meaningless letters. STEM-field employers know: you can’t pronounce STEM without computer programming. It is the language and the syntax of STEM.
It’s also the new lab. Remember those Nobel prizewinners? They’re not alone. For many STEM-field scientists, the lab of the 20th century, with its Bunsen burners and microscopes, has given way to the 21st century virtual lab. Increasingly, scientific breakthroughs happen in an entirely virtual environment, where computer simulations programmed by biologists, chemists and physicists mimic real-world conditions and scenarios as they act or interact with their experiments.
It’s one thing to talk about hypotheticals. But it’s another to take a look at our ground game. Nowhere is that game being played more vigorously than in Henrico County Public Schools. And yet, even with star players like Apple and Dell and a team that consists of every middle and high school student in the district, Team Henrico has barely moved in the points race.
A decade after more than 12,000 Henrico County high school students received their very own educational laptop computers specifically for the purpose of digital literacy, Henrico has just two computer science teachers. One of them is brand new in 2013. Prior to this year, in a district of more than 40,000 children, on average only about 30 of them ever took a computer programming class before their senior year in high school.
In the city of Richmond, where there is no student laptop initiative, the district offers no -- not a single one -- computer programming classes.
Just think of the thousands of great, high-paying jobs in STEM fields that Virginia students will be unqualified or under-qualified to fill because they lack basic computer programming skills.
Fact: More than 70 percent of all STEM field jobs are computer-programming jobs. Among the other 30 percent, nearly all require some knowledge of computer programming as a basic skill.
Fact: In the Richmond region, fewer than one percent of students will, on graduation, will have any knowledge of a topic that is the number-one required skillset of 21st century Virginia employers and 21st century Virginia jobs.
Some other facts about Computer Science
● Computer Science is not computer literacy: Computer science teaches how to make new tools to solve problems. Computer literacy simply teaches students how to use a computer. Computer programming teaches computational thinking.
● Computer Science is one of the only K-12 subjects that develops, as its primary learning objective, critical thinking skills.
● Across the United States, fewer than 10 percent of high schools offer computer science classes.
● Computer programming is an integrated part of curriculums in China, India, England and Australia.
● The 1.4 million computer science jobs that will be available by 2020 represents a $500 billion segment of the job market -- opportunities that may well be lost to overseas competition if there are no trained workers to fill these jobs.
● Virginia is second only to Washington D.C. among states with the highest average pay in computer programming jobs. The average (mean) computer programmer in Virginia makes $92,880 annually.
● A college degree isn’t necessary to get a foot in the door as a computer programmer. Many students can and do take a foundational knowledge of programming -- often what they’ve learned on their own -- and springboard that into either their own e-entrepreneurial business or a high-paying job.
● Women of all races account for a quarter of all jobs in computer science fields. African Americans account for just 7.5 percent of all jobs in the field.
● In Virginia where 1,600 students took the AP Computer Science exam in 2013, fewer than 100 of them were African Americans. Of those, fewer than 20 were female. Ninety Hispanic students took the same test, and fewer than 10 of those were female.
● Only 4.6 percent of undergraduate degrees awarded in computer programming-related fields were conferred to African Americans.