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Preparing the 21st Century Workforce By Expanding High School Computer Science

October 3, 2022

As much of the world transitioned to the digital world for work, learning, and socializing during the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of the computer science and IT fields has become clearer than ever. Tech giants like Google and Microsoft are investing deeply in higher education programs to prepare the next generation to enter these fields with the knowledge and skills needed to continue shepherding us into the digital age.

While these investments are both timely and necessary, we can and should be starting earlier, especially in historically marginalized communities. Young people must have access to career readiness, particularly in fast growing fields like computer science, well before they enter a college campus. In California, only 39% of high schools offer computer science courses, and even fewer offer Advanced Placement computer science. In order to truly ensure all young people are ready to step into the 21st century job market, high schools must expand their computer science and IT offerings.

In order to provide students with these experiences, high schools can leverage pathways that weave career-technical education and core academic classes together through an industry theme like STEM or computer science. One approach high schools have been using for over a decade is Linked Learning, an approach to high school that links rigorous academics, high-quality career-technical learning, and student supports to prepare students for a full range of college, career, and community opportunities after high school.

A growing number of Linked Learning pathways are focusing on engineering, computer science, and other STEM fields. For many students, it’s a field they haven’t considered before. “A lot of students just feel like they're not tech-y enough. They think they don't have those technological skills and we really want to bridge that gap,” explains Elizabeth Kackery, a program specialist at Cajon High School in San Bernardino City Unified School District. Through the Cybersecurity and Information Technology Pathway, students contend with real-world cybersecurity scenarios that leverage industry-level knowledge, skills, and technology. Students also build social capital through their pathways, meeting with industry professionals during guest speaker programs, internships, and work-based learning opportunities. With the skills, knowledge, and capital built in high school, Cybersecurity and Information Technology Pathway graduates have gone on to not only major in computer science in higher education, but intern alongside highly respected professors and industry professionals.

In Los Angeles School District, students in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics (STEAM) Pathway at Roosevelt High School build industry skills through project-based learning in partnership with industry and postsecondary partners. Ed Kim, STEAM Pathway’s Career-Technical Education teacher, collaborated with an industry expert turned professor at University of California, Los Angeles to create a machine learning project for his students. Using Python, his students coded keyword detection bots to flag hate speech, sexual harassment, and microagressions on social media. A few weeks into the project, Twitter rolled out a feature almost identical to what students were working on. Mr. Kim reflected that students were “blown away” that what they were working on in the classroom was something that real-world industry professionals were also working on. By seeing their work reflected in the real world, students could also begin to picture themselves in this work. And in a high school pathway made up entirely of students of color and nearly equal number of male and female students, having students see themselves in the computer science field is another step closer to bridging equity gaps sooner.

In Visalia Unified School District, the Academy of Computer Science in Mount Whitney High School is striving to close gender gaps in computer science. The school has instituted a Women in STEM Club to help connect young women with each other and to other women in the field, building their confidence and sense of belonging in computer science. They are also working to build student appetite for college through the experiences they have in the Academy of Computer Science. James McKernan, the academy’s lead teacher, recalls only a few students expressing interest at the beginning of each school year. By the time they reach their senior year, however, he shares that many students are excited by the prospect of higher education. He attributes this to the pathway experience, particularly the work-based learning opportunities students have. “When students come back, it’s like they're talking about Disneyland. But they're talking about their internship,” he says. When students have the opportunity to truly see themselves in a career field, the value of the postsecondary education that puts them on that career path becomes more tangible.

The need for highly skilled computer science, cybersecurity, and information technology professionals is only going to continue growing. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics predicts employment across these fields will increase 13% by 2030, making it one of the fastest growing fields. With a median annual salary 117% higher than the median wage for all other occupations, the computer and information technology fields offer young people a path to economic prosperity. This path is becoming even clearer with California’s investment of over $500 million in college and career pathways, particularly those that prepare students to lead in the computer science, IT, technology, and STEM fields. And the funding names Linked Learning as an approach to achieve high-quality college and career experiences for young people. By investing in this field the high school level, we can shrink equity gaps and make the computer science field a viable postsecondary and career path for all young people.