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Congressional Panel Asks: What K-12 Skills Are Needed for STEM Workforce?

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Washington

Schools need to do more to equip K-12 students with computational thinking skills to prepare them to fill the growing number of middle- and high-skilled jobs that require computing or programming skills, witnesses told members of a congressional committee this week.

The STEM workforce is rapidly changing, said James Brown, the executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, a STEM education advocacy group. Mechanics and technicians—occupations that aren't always popularly associated with a need for computing skills—now require some programming ability, he said. And the jobs pay well.

"If you're really good at being an automechanic, and you work at a high-end car dealership, you might make more money in your first or second year than a college-degreed person—who is maybe in the middle of their class—with an engineering degree," Brown said, in his testimony before the House, Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

States and school districts need to adapt to this shift, he said. But many aren't focusing their computer science and STEM efforts on the kinds of career and technical education curricula and lessons that could lead to jobs after high school graduation.  

A number of members of Congress argued that ensuring that students are prepared to enter careers in computing fields is integral to the future of the U.S. workforce and the nation's competitiveness in a global economy.

"The workforce gap is espescially troubling considering the many hearings we've held in this committee on cybersecurity issues," said Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Republican from Virginia and the subcommittee chair. She said tech-focused companies in her district have voiced the need for an emerging workforce able to tackle cybersecurity concerns.

The goal of opening up more opportunities for students to study computer science and preparing them for the STEM workforce drew bipartisan support at the hearing. Also this week, Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., and Rep. Steve Knight, R-Calif., introduced a bill to encourage the National Science Foundation to devote more funding to research in teaching STEM in early childhood, defined in the bill as age 11 and younger.

Both Rosen and Knight sit on the committee, which contributes to shaping legislation around STEM education (which includes computer science), especially the programming of federal agencies like NASA and the National Science Foundation.

Foundational Skills

Several lawmakers at the hearing asked about what specific skills students all students would need in the STEM workforce, especially in middle-skilled positions that don't require a college degree but may require specialized training. 

Brown said that problem-solving skills with technology will be especially important. 

Pat Yongpradit, the chief academic officer at Code.org, a nonprofit that aims to expand access to computer science education, echoed Brown's assessment. Yongpradit emphasized that computational-thinking skills will be more important than learning how to operate individual devices, which could become obsolete soon after students learn how to use them.

"Focusing on these key foundational concepts in computer science is the way to go," he said. 

Workers in today's economy are being "automated out" because they only learned how to use technology in school, not how to apply computational thinking skills to direct machines, said Yongpradit. "We have people who may be able to use a welding machine, but they're not able to program a welding machine," he said.

Courses need to "dig deeper," he said to give students the skills around technology that will make them indespensible. Yongpradit pointed to the K-12 Computer Science Framework, which Code.org helped write in collaboration with representatives from school districts and research and nonprofit organizations in 2015, as a good example of those enduring skills. 

'The Education System Can't Keep Up'

Dee Mooney, the executive director of the Micron Technology Foundation, an organization that promotes STEM education, told lawmakers that supplemental educational programs and out-of-school time STEM experiences can boost student skills. Comstock added that introducing students to computer science skills outside of the the K-12 school system could be a possible solution for districts that are hesitant or slow-moving to adopt large-scale programs. 

But Yongpradit raised concerns around relying too heavily on out-of-school programs and coding programs offered online. "Our research shows that when there is a teacher in a classroom teaching these subjects, the classrooms are more diverse, and the kids go further," he said. "Ultimately, schools need to be responsive to where our culture is heading."

Computer science and coding programs have grown more popular in the nation's K-12 schools over the years, and major corporations have lent their support to those programs. Critics, however, have questioned whether companies based in Silicon Valley are shaping school curriculum to serve their own workforce needs and financial interests.

While Brown lauded the work of out-of-school skills programming, he raised concerns about training sponsored by tech companies aiming to mold future employees.  

"The companies are doing [their own training] because the education system can't keep up," he said. "That's not to say we should be giving up on fixing our educational institutions. The high schools that people really value are the ones that are preparing kids for specific career paths."

Brown said that most of the states that have already proposed their ESSA plans have added science to their state's accountability systems, and about one-fourth plan to use federal resources to invest in STEM teacher development. But whether any of those changes are supported by federal funding is uncertain, he said, as the Trump administration's budget and the House Appropriations Committee are sending "mixed signals" about what funding will be available for those programs. 

Pressing for Diversity 

Lawmakers at the hearing also emphasized the role that K-12 systems can play in drawing more girls and underrepresented minorities into the STEM workforce. 

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, mentioned President Obama's Computer Science For All initiative, and a bill introduced last week that directs the NSF to award grants encouraging young girls to get involved in STEM, as examples of steps that could engage underrepresented groups in K-12. 

"Right now, computer scientists are creating innovative products and services that will affect all of our lives," said Johnson. "These innovations cannot meet the needs of society if they are developed without insights from women and underrepresented minorities." 

Photo: Jennifer Langston, a freshman at Plain Dealing High School in Plain Dealing, La., is learning engineering and computer programming skills in a cyber-literacy class. --Douglas Collier for Education Week, file.


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