Make Room for C-S in S-T-E-M

Earlier this year, President Obama announced the Computer Science for All (CS for All) initiative “to empower all American students from kindergarten through high school to learn computer science … and computational thinking skills…” CS for All officially expands the notion of STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math—education.

Computational skills are in high demand in many disciplines and careers—information technology, robotics, digital media, game simulation, animation, web development, and cybersecurity, to name a few. Yet, despite its recognized importance, computer science (CS) education remains elusive, accessible to, and accessed by only a select few.

CS—like the “T” and “E” in STEM education—has long suffered from the “of course it’s important, but not as important as other subjects” syndrome. Math is widely understood to be singularly important. Science is recognized as important, but secondary. And technology, engineering and CS are typically perceived as supplementary add-ons, relevant and appropriate for only the most gifted students.

Research by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reveals that CS courses are not widely available across the nation’s schools and that when they are, enrollment is starkly divided:

  • Girls represented 22 percent and racial/ethnic minorities just 13 percent of the approximately 50,000 high school students nationally who took the CS Advanced Placement (AP) exam in 2015.
  • In three states—Mississippi, Montana and Wyoming—not one female student took the CS AP exam. And in nine states—Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming—no African-American students took the test.
  • Low-income communities have the least access to CS classes or afterschool clubs. 

What we have, in effect, is a population of students without equal access to the new “basic core subjects” that includes CS and undergirds career success in a digitally connected world.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. According to a recent Gallup poll, 90 percent of parents see CS education as a valuable use of school resources. In addition to President Obama’s announcement of the CS for All initiative, the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) explicitly encourages states and districts to make computer science part of a “well-rounded” education for all students. And districts and states seem to be taking action.

Last fall, New York City's Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a 10-year, $81 million dollar plan that will require every public school in the district to offer CS.

In February, the Chicago Board of Education unanimously approved CS as a graduation requirement for all Chicago Public Schools students beginning with the class of 2020.

Also in February, Governors Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, Jay Inslee of Washington, and Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island formed the Governors’ Partnership for K-12 Computer Science. This bipartisan initiative aims to enable all high schools in their states to offer at least one rigorous computer science course, fund professional training for teachers, and set K-12 CS standards to guide states, districts and schools with licensure, curriculum, and graduation requirements—all critical to ensuring equitable access.

Some teacher support for CS education is also already in place. The CS10K Community offers professional learning to a large virtual network of educators. The Computer Science Teachers Association has cross-walked its K-12 CS standards against the Common Core requirements. Educators are broadening participation and helping underserved populations gain access to computer science education. Examples include CS advocates Jane Margolis and Andreas Stefik, newly dubbed White House Champions of Change. Also, such nonprofits as Girls Who Code and TECHNOLOchicas are providing CS opportunities for young women.

Will the bold long-term goals of these efforts and initiatives be realized? Will there be CS for All? Will underserved students move into the worlds of coding, robotics, digital media, and more?

Making computer science relevant, approachable and accessible to all students and teachers will require in-school and after-school partnerships among educators, policymakers, businesses, industries, communities, and—yes—popular media. Success will require all working together to change perceptions—and then the reality—of who should and will be a CS learner.

Courtney Tanenbaum is a Principal Researcher and the STEM Practice Area Director at AIR specializing in issues of equity, access, and opportunity within STEM pathways and the sociocultural factors that affect broadening participation in STEM.

Melissa Rasberry is a Senior Technical Assistance Consultant at AIR specializing in technology for teaching and learning, including serving as Principal Investigator for the CS10K Community, virtual community of practice for CS teachers across the United States.


Image of Courtney Tanenbaum
Managing Researcher