Encouraging students to choose Computer Science and Career Technical Education courses
Larkin LeSueur explains how the Humble Independent School District in Texas has used the ‘Goldilocks Principle’ to encourage students to choose courses in Computer Science and Career Technical Education (CTE).
Lack of choice?
We all know about Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Basically, here was someone who did not make a choice until she had found something that was ‘just right’.
She also knew what would suit her when she saw it.
When it comes to computer science in schools however, there are frequently just not enough choices on offer that seem relevant or attractive enough to study at a higher level.
Thankfully, computer science is now taught in the majority of international schools and almost all subject courses will have an IT component. Whether a school follows GCSE, IB or other international courses, many students will also have studied some coding as part of an IT course up to the age of 14.
Nevertheless, in some schools, especially those following a US curriculum, many students may leave school without experiencing the joy of computer science.
Opportunties and career pathways.
This is all the more concerning because industries and businesses world-wide continually voice their concern over the lack of tech skills among high-school and college graduates. When you look at the 22 most in-demand skills required by US organizations, they are all CTE based. According to a survey by Manpower, by the end of 2020 there were an estimated 1.4 million unfilled computer science jobs. Unsurprisingly, a computer science based career is currently one of the fastest-growing and highest paid, frequently leading to six-figure salaries.
With the right skills students can almost walk out of school and into an attrractive career pathway. And yet too many students are not choosing to do so. Why?
Of course CTE isn’t for everyone and I often hear students, especially girls, say that ‘CTE isn’t for them.’ Girls are more likely to associate computer science with people like Elon Musk founder of SpaceX and the Tesla, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs co-founder of Apple and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg.
They seem to lack role models. But are we making them aware of the right people?
Throughout history women have faced systematic barriers and gender discrimination and yet we have women to thank for many of the world’s technology-based inventions.
Grace Brewster Murray Hopper (1906-1992) realized that programming would be more accessible if people could code in their own language. She went on to co-invent COBOL, the first universal programming language. Despite racial discrimination, Annie Easley (1933 – 2011) was a leading, but hidden architect of high-energy rocket technology at NASA.
And of course, if you are reading this article online, it’s possibly thanks to Hedy Lamarr the Hollywood Star, who, in 1941, invented frequency-hopping technology that became a precursor to Wi-Fi.
Providing a real choice
The more students, especially girls, realize that computer science can lead to a vast range of exciting careers, from fashion or automotive design to healthcare, music journalism or sports analysis, the more they will consider an associated career . . . and perhaps follow CTE courses in High School.
In Humble Independent School District (Texas) we worked to develop 170 different CTE based classes for our students, from cosmetology and AI expertize to cyber-security and robotics. Our belief is that if we offer them a wide range of opportunities, that are relevant to them, it’s more likely that they find something they love.
Like finding the right-sized bowl, chair and bed for the bears, the next challenge to address was finding the right game development software. We also believed that to attract more students to computer science you have to start them early.
Choosing the right games-based platform
With skilled and passionate staff, teaching coding through a game-based platform is the ideal first step. The use of block-based programming languages such as Scratch provides an easy, visual entry into game development. However, these block-based programming languages soon become too limited and many students lose interest.
The other alternative is text-based programming languages such as Unity and Java. However, using the Goldilocks analogy, at the middle school stage this can prove to be just too big: it’s complex and daunting.
My recommendation to schools is to consider game development software that provides a scalable platform that can grow with the students. In our case, we selected Construct 3 which is not only free of charge but also allows students to mix-and-match components of block-based and text programing in the same project, even to the level of blending elements of each within a program segment. As they progress through middle school, students slowly transition to using less block-based and more text-based programming. This scaffolded approach to learning gives them the real-world application and a basic fundamental understanding of computer science by the time they reach secondary/high school.
Here in Humble ISD we can now proudly say that we have more than 70 percent of students studying CTE- based courses with more staying on through high school and beyond – better than at any time before. Technology and computational thinking will be woven through whichever career path they choose. It was high time we made the changes we did to meet their (and society’s) needs. We’re pleased we did and we are pleased with the outcomes.
Larkin LeSueur is Director of Career and Technical Education at Humble Independent School District, Texas, US