How An Iowa Teacher is Leveling Up to Meet His State's New Computer Science Curriculum Mandates
- By Tim Walljasper
The Computer Science Teachers Association’s A Model Curriculum for K–12 Computer Science report defines computer science as “the study of computers and algorithmic processes, including their principles, their hardware and software designs, their applications and their impact on society.”
Computer science develops students’ computational and critical thinking skills and shows students how to create — not just use — new technologies. Computer science prepares students for success now and in the future.
A report from Burning Glass found there were as many as 7 million job openings in 2015 in occupations that require coding skills. The report also found that programming jobs overall were growing 12 percent faster than the average market. Plus, half of the programming openings came from industries outside of technology such as finance, manufacturing, and healthcare.
These are among the reasons that Iowa’s legislature took action to ensure students have the skills needed to be “future-ready” and passed House File 2629 into law in 2020, establishing new requirements for K–12 schools: Starting this fall, high schools are required to offer at least one high-quality computer science course. In addition, all middle and elementary schools in the state must incorporate computer science instruction in time for the 2023–2024 school year.
A challenge to meeting these new requirements here in Iowa — likely similar to any other state — is that there’s not a workforce of teachers who went to college to teach computer science. To get this training, hundreds of Iowans like myself — teachers working in different subject areas but recognizing a need for students to have exposure to computer science topics — are partnering with organizations such as NewBoCo, a local nonprofit in neighboring Cedar Rapids, receiving high-quality professional development rich in both computer science content and pedagogy.
Shining a Light on What Computer Science Is and Can Be
Most families, educators, and officials agree that computer science is important and crucial for the next generation of students to learn, but there’s a fair amount of confusion around what computer science entails. In fact, in a comprehensive 2014 Gallup study sponsored by Google, 75 percent of teachers and 63 percent of principals surveyed believe creating documents or presentations on a computer is considered computer science.
We’ve progressed since then, yet we still have some ground to cover.
Computer science is so much more than learning to use a computer. While a general computer course might cover such topics, computer science focuses on computer design and development, rather than computer use. For example, students enrolled in a computer science course might study the impacts of artificial intelligence, write algorithms to search large datasets, or show off their creativity by programming an app.
Yet, students hear the term “computer science” and frequently believe it’s not for them. At Johnston High School, we’re working hard to change the narrative. Computer science in high school isn’t just for students who plan to major in computer science at the university level.
Regardless of the career path students have in mind, computer science topics will almost always apply in a world that will only become more digital. Too often, computer science is perceived as a male-orientated field, or that coding work happens in isolation in a cubicle. This isn’t the case. Computer science requires high levels of collaboration and creativity and touches nearly all career fields. Computer science is for all.
At JHS, we’re fortunate to offer two courses, Computer Science Principles and AP Computer Science A. Both courses are meant to challenge students but also to introduce students to the vast world of computer science.
Our Computer Science Principles course serves as an introduction to computer science. We’ve had students sign up for the class and say, “Wow, I love this.” We’ve also had students sign up, thinking about majoring in computer science beforehand, and then realize it’s not the right fit for them. The Computer Science Principles course provides a safe environment for all students to explore and discover their passions. We touch on cybersecurity, data analysis, programming, and how the internet works.
The AP Computer Science A course offers the more traditional CS 101 experience students would take at a university. This requires me to teach the course at a college level that is outside of my comfort zone and beyond my undergraduate training. However, my students and I have access to a high-quality curriculum written by educators with professional experience in the field. This allows for success for both my students and I, and it helps us add an additional section of AP computer science A to our course offerings at JHS.
Introducing Students to What’s Possible
Diversity in computer science, as in other fields, is important because it helps enrich the talent field which, in turn, helps companies better find solutions to their problems.
According to the Google Gallup study, Black students are less likely than White and Hispanic students to have access to clubs or groups that teach computer science. The study also showed that Hispanic students often have less exposure to computer technology at home, and in school they are less confident in their ability to learn computer science and are less likely to perceive that people who work in computer science have good-paying jobs.
Introducing all students to what’s possible with computer science is a significant step toward shining a light on these inequities and addressing the lack of diversity in important occupations that require programming knowledge.
When I first transitioned to teaching computer science, I, along with other teachers across the state, completed a computer science boot camp with the NewBoCo team and learned the basics of computer science over the summer months. Since training took place in the summer, we had time to digest the content and not stress about teaching something new the next week. From the start, the boot camp emphasized that we’re not expected to be experts, but rather, leaders. As schools and districts across Iowa implement computer science into their curriculums, I believe such training is crucial.
Since the new requirements were first introduced by lawmakers in 2017, the ultimate vision has always been that students gain opportunities to engage in the concepts and practices of computer science. Mandating that computer science be integral to K–12 education is a small step toward that shared vision to equip students with the skills needed to be “future-ready.”
Tim Walljasper teaches computer science at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa. He also supports the school's HyperStream Club, fostering real-world interaction and project-based learning through hands-on projects, competitions, and engaging presentations.