Tech has long been considered a promising option for people wanting to enter an industry with well-paying jobs and ever-expanding opportunities. But increasing access to people who have been historically left out of the field — including Black and brown professionals and women — remains a challenge, in Philadelphia and beyond.
Computer Science Education Week in early December served as a moment for educators to reflect on how to get kids interested in tech fields, and consider the work that’s already been done.
Case in point: In the School District of Philadelphia, 123 K-8 schools encompassing more than 45,000 students are exposed to digital literacy and technology curriculum, which includes computer science. Around 2,300 high school students are currently taking a computer science course, and 40 teachers across 27 high schools in the district are teaching these courses, according to Luke Bilger, executive director of educational technology at the school district.
The district is partnering with organizations such as CS4Philly to expand equitable computer science education because ultimately, leaders say, these students could be future of the tech industry in Philly.
“This is really about the economic future of Philadelphia because these students, these young folks, are going to be the ones to drive the local and regional tech economy, as workers and also entrepreneurs,” CS4Philly cofounder Chad Womack said during a Computer Science Education Week last Wednesday. “We want to make sure that all boats rise with the rising tide that we’re trying to inspire.”
The event, which also celebrated CS4Philly’s fifth year, featured a panel on the “State of Computer Science Education in Philly,” which discussed how far the city has come in terms of computer science education and where it still needs to grow.
“Not only is computer science critical, but we need to hold ourselves accountable for making progress towards our goals,” fellow CS4Philly cofounder Naomi Housman said. “It’s a long game. It’s not something that’s going to happen right away.”
Computer science access has been uneven
The event’s keynote speaker was Leigh Ann DeLyser, cofounder and executive director of CSforAll, an organization that works with schools districts, funders and other stakeholders to bring computer science education to students. DeLyser put Philly’s current state of computer science into context.
“We have to remember the time where CS education was rocket science, where it was the thing for the few. It was the idea of finding the diamonds in the rough,” she said. “I’m so proud today in 2022 that it’s no longer about finding the diamonds, because they’re all diamonds. They all belong in this subject. And we live in a world where this subject pervades our lives, so they need to belong in this subject. And they need to see it as a part of every day.”
According to code.org, 53% of high schools in the United States offer a foundation computer science course, which is up from 51% last year. In Pennsylvania, 77% of public high schools offered a foundation computer science course. In Philadelphia, only 49% of high schools in the school district offer a foundational computer science course.
Of course, DeLyser noted, these numbers represent access — but that doesn’t mean every high school student with access is actually taking a computer science course.
Philly stakeholders are working to increase computer science support to both teachers and students
Tammy Pirmann, a computer science professor at Drexel University, said it wasn’t until 2020 that Pennsylvania started offering a specific computer science certification for teachers. Bilger added that most of the district’s computer science teachers are used to teaching a different subject, so the certification both helps more teachers to learn the nitty-gritty of the subject and guides universities in creating professional development opportunities for those teachers.
Bilger said the school district has received PAsmart grants from the Pennsylvania Department of Education which are specifically for computer science education. With this funding, the school district offered computer science training through a code.org courses for K-12 teachers. Starting in January, teachers teaching a new computer science course must have the certification, he said.
“We’re providing more hands-on dedicated support to our computer science teachers, visiting them, seeing what their needs are, better communication,” he said.
The idea is that the more comfortable teachers are teaching this curriculum, the more students will be exposed to and possibly interested in computer science at a younger age; then, they may continue on that path in higher ed or in a career. (Here’s a snapshot of what that exposure looked like at a Computer Science Education Week event at Philly’s William Rowen Elementary last week.)
Inclusivity must be prioritized when expanding access
Jamie Payton, professor of computer and information sciences from Temple University, said the focus has been on getting computer science into schools, but even with access, there are still disparities in who is taking these courses.
“What we really have to be doing is building things together to apply approaches that are culturally responsive for populations that have been excluded in computing,” she said. It’s especially important to focus on evidence-based approaches “that have been effective for engaging Black and Hispanic students.”
Payton said partners doing this work also have to find ways to make it engaging to students so they want to participate and find ways to make computer science spaces welcoming and inclusive.
For further reading on this topic, read this column about higher ed: “Educators can help make STEM fields diverse. Over 25 years, I’ve identified nudges that can encourage students to stay.”
Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.