Last week, students across the country participated in Computer Science Education Week, and one way they are celebrating is through the Hour of Code. Hour of Code is a grassroots effort that hopes to increase student engagement in computer science by demonstrating through hour-long tutorials how interesting, accessible, and useful coding is. Across Wisconsin, a handful of schools participated, including Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a unique private school in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

Computer science education is important now more than ever. Recent polling indicates that 90% of parents want their children to study computer science. And 82% of middle-skill jobs require digital skills. According to ExcelinEd, “computing jobs are the number one source of new wages in the U.S.” And here in Wisconsin, 58% of all new jobs in STEM are in computing.

According to the Hour of Code website, it is an opportunity “to expose students to computer science in the interest of changing any misconceptions they may have about the field.” One particularly fun tutorial allows you to code in the world of Minecraft; while another teaches students how to make an animated figure dance.

Students at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School during their Hour of Code event.

Cristo Rey Jesuit High School permitted us to tour the school and learn about their efforts to promote computer science. This is Cristo Rey’s second year participating, and they hope this event will further engage their students. Amazingly, almost 25% of Cristo Rey students are involved in learning computer science in some form. This includes taking Intro to Computer Science, AP Computer Science, or joining the computer science club.

Cristo Rey’s Corporate Work Study Program assigns high school students to work at a local company based on interest and skill. Andy Stith, President of Cristo Rey Jesuit, told us that the school’s “unique work-study program gives them a vision as to what corporate employers are looking for…and a lot of our employers are looking for this skillset.”

In fact, Cristo Rey’s corporate partners helped start their computer science program. In 2018, Northwestern Mutual gave Cristo Rey Jesuit a grant to do coding and robotics with their freshman class. From there the program grew.

Andrew Boddy-Spargo, Dean and teacher of Computer Science, said “computer science is about collaboration, creativity, [and] problem solving.” He feels these skills are important in every work setting and important skills for life.

As technology and innovations develop so does the need for workers who are educated in the basics of computer science. There are 6,712 open computing jobs in Wisconsin, but not enough students are graduating with the skills needed to fill these jobs. In 2017, Wisconsin only had 1,190 students graduate with a degree in computer science. It shouldn’t be this way considering the increase in economic opportunity studying computer science offers.

Efforts like Hour of Code and celebrations of computer science classes are more than just a fun learning opportunity. These efforts are responding to a vital need in our workforce for students to learn and use computer science. And it’s working.

One Cristo Rey senior, Brian, gave a demonstration of how he uses code to move a Sphero, a robotic sphere the students built, around the room. He explained how much computer science has helped him at his corporate work study program, in school and how he hopes it will help him next year as he studies civil engineering at Marquette University or MSOE.

“What I take from coding I can apply to my schoolwork to make me more efficient,” Brian said. “If I am working on a science project, I can use what I have learned through coding to create a better presentation.” But Brian is learning skills that will also serve him well after college. “My job requires me to work with engineers and come up with ways to make their jobs easier, sometimes that’s through spreadsheets that help workers understand what task needs to be done by what specific date. That’s where programming comes into play because many of the programs we need for Excel are similar to the ones we need for the Spheros. So [coding] is kind of a way to practice skills I need at my job.”

Wisconsin schools should be embracing computer science in their curriculums so their students can be prepared like Brian. Yet students in the Badger State are getting left behind. Only 35% of Wisconsin high schools are offering computer science classes, not nearly enough to address the growing demand. Shockingly, only 17% of those schools offer AP courses or have an AP computer science and fewer AP exams are taken in computer science than in any other STEM subject area. In contrast, 19 other states require computer science, which gives those students an advantage over Wisconsin students.

Wisconsin’s teaching colleges are also woefully unprepared; in 2016, only two teachers graduated from University of Wisconsin ready to teach computer science and in 2017, not one teacher graduated from the University of Wisconsin ready to teach computer science.

Is there more that the state and school district leaders should be doing to better educate children for 21st century jobs?

Jessica Holmberg is a Policy and Communications Associate with the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

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