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Computer Science and Student Engagement Supporting the T in STEM

Last month, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) published an eagerly anticipated white paper titled Education & Careers in the U.S.: The Future of Computer Science. The report is a comprehensive compilation of insights from government officials, business executives, and thought leaders from across the country who met together for a day-long executive round table discussion last September – hosted by STEMconnector and TCS – to explore the current state of science, technology, engineering, and math education in America. The discussions particularly focused on how policy, advocacy, and outreach have worked together to improve STEM education and experts offered their own suggestions on additional and better collaborative opportunities to increase student participation in STEM – specifically in the realm of computer science (CS), which they determined will constitute more than 70% of STEM jobs by 2018.
 
While each participating company and organization discussed different issues and offered their own suggestions, there was a large degree of consensus among the speakers in regard to what America’s next steps in STEM education and engagement need to be. “We believe that a foundational understanding of [computer science] is an indispensable skill for the workforce,” say Edie Fraser and Ted Wells of STEMconnector. “We believe that we must develop expertise beyond foundational knowledge in much greater numbers to meet employer demand. Finally, we believe that we will only accomplish our goals through collaboration.” Here at NMSI, we believe there are four key takeaways from the executive round table and the following white paper to improve STEM education and keep the national globally competitive:

1.Increase Understanding of Computer Science: By definition, computer science is a foundational field in which there are many opportunities for students and workers to design, discover, develop, and build new innovations and advances through technology. However, as exciting as this field is, Gary J. Beach of CIO Magazine says that students are almost immediately turned-off when they hear CS “requires some mathematical background.” He believes there are many reasons for this, the chief of which is the “horrible marketing by the technology industry.” Students don’t understand that CS degrees are extremely important and that skilled CS workers are in high demand; instead, they think only “geeks” pursue degrees and careers in computer science, and that science and math are irrelevant subjects. Therefore, it is up to teachers, professionals, and tech businesses to reverse this line of thinking, to show students the power of computer science, and to explain how it can – and does – impact their lives.

2.Encourage Engagement in the STEM Disciplines: As previously stated, many students in high school and college think that STEM is non-essential or too hard to master. This might be a difficult mindset to shift in older students, but younger students are much more open to learning math and science, thus it is imperative we start teaching our students the basics of STEM at the elementary level. “The longer a society waits,” says Beach, “the more difficult it is to get people to embrace STEM.” Furthermore, according to Surya Kant, President of TCS, in order for America to “meet the demand for skilled technology talent” we must encourage all of our students – both young and old – to take advantage of the exciting opportunities CS and STEM provide. “NMSI believes that all students in all schools should have equal access to rigorous computer science courses and support from their teachers, especially in the STEM subjects,” says NMSI Chief Academic Officer Gregg Fleisher in the TCS white paper. “We believe STEM is the best way to expand opportunities, increase skills, and promote innovation and growth in this country.”

3.Sharpen Student Knowledge and Skills: A large part of encouraging students to pursue careers in STEM is making sure they have the skills to do so. In the ever-changing, constantly evolving world of technology, Kant says it is of the utmost importance that we not only encourage our students but also enable them to become life-long learners and innovators in the field of computer science. “The demand for these new jobs will be great, and we must ensure that our entire potential talent workforce is able to engage.” According to STEMconnector’s Edie Fraser and Balaji Ganapathy of TCS, one way of ensuring this is by establishing a “career pathway support system” in which private and public organizations “train the future talent pool to meet the growing demands” of STEM.

4.Train and Support More Teachers in CS and STEM: Two reasons why our students aren’t excited about STEM and CS is because out teachers don’t understand it and schools don’t support it. According to the white paper, 30% of STEM teachers didn’t major in their field, and 50% of schools don’t have a focused STEM program. “Many of our teachers have limited exposure to computer science and are simply not ready to implement technology into their curriculum,” says Al Bunshaft, President and CEO of Dassault Systèmes Americas. Darren Cambridge of the American Institutes for Research says, “We also need to rapidly expand the number of teachers who are well qualified to teach computer science in a way that significantly broadens participation.”
 

These are only four key points in a list of things that need to be done in order to increase STEM proficiency and engagement, but it really all boils down to collaboration and support. As the white paper states, “No major initiative in the country is accomplished in the absence of collaboration. Bridging the CS skills gap is no exception.” Thus, it is up to businesses and school districts, government agencies and community groups to work together across their respective sectors and provide the support and encouragement our students and workers need to keep our nation globally competitive. This has always been NMSI’s stance. “NMSI believes that all students in all schools should have equal access to rigorous computer science courses and support from their teachers, especially in the STEM subjects,” says NMSI Chief Academic Officer Gregg Fleisher in the TCS white paper. “We believe STEM is the best way to expand opportunities, increase skills, and promote innovation and growth in this country.”
 
We are doing our part through our Teacher Training and Comprehensive Advanced Placement programs. We are dedicated to ensuring America’s teachers and students are prepared to handle the demands of a 21st century classroom and workforce, and our programs have experienced phenomenal success over the years by doing exactly that. However, we know we can’t do it alone. Collaborative support is the key to promoting STEM success, and we should all be doing our utmost to support America’s schools.
 
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