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Computer Science Ed. Gets Boost From $6 Million NSF Grant

Efforts to expand participation in computer science education at the K-12 and postsecondary levels are getting a lift from a $6.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst announced today.

The university is teaming up with Georgia Computes!, a project at Georgia Tech, to serve as a resource to help educators in other states offer new approaches and best practices in computing education, and to create strong "computing pipelines" for more professionals, the release explains. The first state partners selected to take part are California and South Carolina.

"We have a whole menu of best practices that we've tested in Massachusetts and in Georgia to offer other states," Renee Fall, the project manager at UMass Amherst for the initiative, said in the press release.

Fall notes that students may decide against pursuing a career in computer science as early as middle school, but that a quality experience with computing early on, or even in high school or college, can set them on a different path.

The grant announcement comes the same day Microsoft sponsored a panel discussion in Washington, dubbed STEM Education and the Race to the Future, that focused in part on computer science education. The four panelists included Chris Stephenson, the executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association, as well as representatives from Microsoft, IBM, and the National Governors Association.

Stephenson, who shared a copy of her PowerPoint presentation with me (and whom I met for coffee yesterday with a couple of colleagues) highlighted projected U.S. job growth in computing fields from 2010 to 2020. Drawn from federal data, it shows robust increases in a variety of relevant careers, including software developers and programmers, computer systems analysts, and information security analysts.

Her organization, Microsoft, and some others, part of a coalition called Computing in the Core, are seeking to get computer science more time and attention in schools. For more on this topic, including the challenges and some promising initiatives, check out this 2010 EdWeek story.

Microsoft in September issued what it calls a National Talent Strategy that features a push for expanding access to computer science education, as well as improving STEM education more broadly. (It also calls for a short-term strategy to allow more foreign workers with STEM skills into the United States.)

With regard to computer science, the Microsoft document says the nation should broaden access to the subject in high school to ensure that all students have the opportunity to "gain this foundational knowledge and explore careers in computing."

It notes: "Computer science is the foundation for much of today's innovation economy, and many of the new jobs being created—and which employers are looking to fill—are in this field," Microsoft says. "The need reaches beyond the information technology sector. Many companies across the economy now use computing technology as a core part of their business and their competitive advantage."

The report says computer science is still rare in U.S. schools. As one barometer, it points out that only 2,100 high schools (out of some 42,000 nationwide) were certified to offer the AP computer science course as of 2011. One of Stephenson's slides indicates that participation over time by students has been far eclipsed by other STEM subjects, such as biology, calculus, physics, and statistics.

Taking a closer look at the College Board website, I found that about 17,000 students from the graduating class of 2011 had taken the AP computer science exam. This compares with:

• 145,000 for Biology
• 203,000 for Calculus AB
• 58,000 for Physics B and
• 120,000 for Statistics.

Rick Adrion, a professor emeritus of computer science UMass Amherst who is helping to spearhead the NSF-funded project, points to a number of changes needed to help give computer science a stronger footing.

"For computing to be taken seriously at all levels of education, we must define high school computing curricula, increase the number of well-trained and certified high school computing teachers, improve postsecondary degree programs, advising, retention, and in general promote computing education reform," he said in the UMass press release.

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