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Technology In Education, Part 1

Is Mass. Preparing Students For Tech Jobs Of The Future?

Computers in schools
Molly Boigon/WGBH News
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Technology In Education, Part 1

This article is part one of a three-part series about teaching computer science in the public schools of Massachusetts. Parts two and three are also available online.

In the next decade, computer-related jobs will dominate job growth in our area. Take biotechnology. It used to be that biotech jobs mainly required lab skills. But with the development of personalized medicine and stem-cell therapies, the industry needs scientists with computing expertise who can analyze large amounts of data to find the best therapies.

“What used to be sort of nice to have, is now essential,” said Eric Celidonio, founder of Sci.Bio, a biotech recruitment firm that focuses on companies around Boston. Biotech is just one industry where computational skills have become necessary. Finance, health care delivery and medicine are also increasingly computerized.

Massachusetts education officials recognized that students need a more sophisticated understanding of computer science than they've been getting. They changed the standards to emphasize teaching kids to create technology rather than just use it. But, according to our analysis, only about one percent of students in the state are taking a computer class that meets most of those recommendations.

That leads some educators to worry that public schools aren’t preparing students for the tech jobs here.

“We are a knowledge-driven economy,” said Eric Conti, president of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents and the superintendent of Burlington Public Schools. “We need to make sure all students achieve to high levels and all students are learning the skills that they need.”

Many educators agree that more kids need serious computational skills, but say the obstacles to training more students are huge.

“Are there hundreds of computer science high school teachers out there today? No,” said Mark Racine, the chief information officer for Boston Public Schools. Racine’s job includes overseeing computer science education for the district.

If Boston wanted to mandate computer science classes, it would likely have to hire hundreds of new teachers.

“We’re struggling to pull one or two when we need to,” Racine said. “That’s a huge challenge.”

The second challenge is time.

“A kid’s day is already pretty full at the high school,” Conti said. “If you’re going to make the choice between computer science and band, art, chorus, I don’t think that’s the right choice for the kids to make. So there’s really no time in the day that exists for us to get kids exposed to computer science before they graduate.”

The last problem is money. That’s especially true in rural and urban districts that have been cutting teachers and programs and don’t have the money to add new courses. There are some less expensive options, Conti said, “but ultimately local communities, local districts have to bare that expense. And funding comes into play. And we have a growing inequity between districts in terms of funding.”

Despite these challenges, some districts are moving ahead and finding creative ways to offer training in computer science.

For the next story in our series on teaching computer science, we visit Burlington High School to see how school leaders there are trying to interest beginners in computer science.

Our coverage of K through 12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

WGBH News coverage is a resource provided by member-supported public radio. We can’t do it without you.
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