Industry, Policy, and Education Experts Address the PreK-12 Computer Science Skills Gap

By 2024, there will be more than 1 million open computing jobs in the U.S., but far fewer skilled workers with the computer science training necessary to fill them.

Beyond positions directly related to computer science, jobs of all types are becoming more digital, with employers across sectors willing to pay big premiums for people with computer and data science skills.

Despite the demand and importance of computer science, some estimates indicate that only one in four PreK-12 schools in the U.S. teach the subject, leaving three-quarters of students ill-equipped to enter the modern workforce.

Experts in industry, policy, and education recently gathered for a virtual panel discussion to address this issue of the PreK-12 computer science skills gap and how schools can be part of the solution.

Moderated by PLTW Senior Vice President and Chief Programs Officer David Greer, the panel of experts included:

  • Dr. Caitlin McMunn Dooley, Ph.D., Deputy Superintendent of Teaching and Learning, Georgia Department of Education
  • Bryan Cox, Computer Science Program Specialist, Georgia Department of Education
  • Anna Hennes, Community Strategist, Cerner Corporation
  • Nimmi Arunachalam, PLTW Computer Science Teacher of the Year and PLTW Master Teacher, Olympic Heights High School (Boca Raton, Florida)

The following are highlights from the discussion:

Why is PreK-12 computer science education important?

McMunn Dooley: We see computer science education as a discipline much like mathematics; we don’t expect everybody to become a mathematician but we all use math in our daily lives. Computer science and computational thinking have to take that level of importance.

When I think of literacy, it really is about empowering a person to reach their full potential. If you don’t know how to read and write, you won’t be able to reach your full potential. The same is true these days with computer science. You really have to understand how computers work in order to be able to communicate in this world. We see computer science as an essential literacy.

Hennes: You can’t find an industry or a job where you’re not going to have that basic, foundational need for digital literacy or a heavy dose of technology-enabled solutions. [We need to] help students understand the broad application of what it means to be a computer scientist. It’s not that you’re sitting in a basement coding. It’s that you are working in a dynamic problem-solving environment that requires all kinds of different skills sets.

What skills do students gain from computer science education?

Cox: The first thing I think about is computational thinking as a problem-solving approach. If you use computational thinking skills, you can break a problem down into more manageable parts and take some of the solutions you’ve used in the past and apply them to new, novel situations.

We deal with problems in our daily lives and have large-scale problems in our society, so when we talk about the skills our students need going out into the world, being able to break a problem down and recognize patterns and sequences – all of the different [skills you learn from] computer science – those are the tools that students need.

Another thing that you learn in computer science is failure tolerance, which I think a lot of students miss. They get a bad grade and all of a sudden they’re destroyed or their identity of self is damaged. Well, a computer scientist knows that they’re going to fail over and over and over again before they succeed.   

What are some of the challenges that schools and districts face in implementing a quality computer science program?

Arunachalam: The main hurdle that most schools face is finding the right teacher. When I say the right teacher, I don’t necessarily mean a teacher with a computer science degree or background, but a teacher with the right attitude and the right motivation to teach computer science in any PreK-12 classroom. I think principals and administrators should poll their teacher population to see who are the teachers who can be nimble and flexible in their learning and could [teach computer science].

How do real-world experiences empower teachers to feel confident in bringing computer science to their classrooms?

Hennes: [Cerner] had three groups come through for PLTW Cybersecurity training; we also hosted a Computer Science A and Computer Science Principles group. We were able to put them in an authentic environment, which I think is critical, because if a student comes to you and says, “Hey, I heard about this place, what does it mean to work there?” you should be able to paint an accurate picture.

What we saw happen from a professional development standpoint for the educators was that [as they learned about things] like, how you would integrate user experience into something you’re designing or what it means to have systems-level integration with devices, we were able to take them through labs and experiences and connect them with people who are doing this work. It became more than a term – it became a thing that they had experienced and done and therefore, they were able to apply that back and make connections with the content that they were learning in their training but then also articulate that application.

How can we work to close the PreK-12 computer science skills gap?

Arunachalam: Treat the cause, not the symptom. Get to students before they form an opinion. It’s like when I tried to learn how to do a backflip in my martial arts class. I was in a class with little kids and they told me, “Nimmi, backflipping isn’t hard. Look, watch me.” We need to get to them before they realize that backflipping is, indeed, hard. If we can address the problem not the symptom and treat our teachers with great care as they go through this learning process, we stand a really good chance of fixing the situation.

Hennes: The critical lever to pull there is the person at the front of the classroom. We look at what we can do to invest in the educators who are delivering the content.

Cox: Empower students to be able to not just go into a specific job, but be a problem-solver and capable no matter what the job landscape looks like.

McMunn Dooley: One of the things I want to emphasize is the need to work very closely with our industry partners to solve this problem.

In Georgia, what we find is we have more students who want internships than we have businesses willing to allow them onto their campus. In rural areas, we need digital connectivity. We have kids who can’t do their homework in their homes because the digital access just isn’t there. We had some businesses open their doors so kids could do their homework there.

It’s that kind of relationship and partnership that we really have to have so we understand what the needs are for industry and so they understand what the needs are in PreK-12 so we can work together.

To learn how you can prepare your students for the future and drive the change needed to close the nation’s computer science skills gap, download our white paper, “Our Duty to Prepare Students to Thrive”.

Sources: The App Association, Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program, Burning Glass Technologies