Having a teacher in the classroom rather than offering an online course is one of the keys to increasing student interest in computer science classes, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Monday (June 10) during an event that celebrated Arkansas’ leadership in the area.
The National Computer Science Summit for State Leaders brought education leaders from 30 states and Washington, D.C., to the Governor’s Mansion. Those included the governors of Iowa and South Carolina.
Hutchinson made requiring high schools to teach computer science one of his main campaign issues during his 2014 election race. He was inspired by his 11-year-old granddaughter, Ella Beth, who had created an app for the campaign.
He successfully passed the mandate through the Legislature during the 2015 session. The law requires schools to offer computer science as a math or science credit. The state also provides $5 million every two years. It pays for teacher training and $5,000 stipends, cash prizes for coding competitions, grants for equipment, and student awards for high Advanced Placement scores.
Since the law was passed, the number of high school students taking a computer science course has increased from fewer than 1,100 to 8,000 students last year. More than 2,400 are females. The number of teachers has grown from fewer than 20 to more than 370. Fifty-nine schools offer Advanced Placement computer science courses. While only 35% of schools nationally teach computer science, 63% of Arkansas schools have a student taking the class.
The successes made Arkansas a national leader and trailblazer in the student coding movement. Anthony Owen was hired as the first state director of computer science education anywhere in 2015. Last week, he attended a conference with about 30 others from states, Washington, D.C., and Canada.
Sheila Boyington, president and CEO of Thinking Media, an educational technology firm, said she was in Sacramento a year ago and people there expressed a desire to be like Arkansas in computer science education.
“There’s not too many times that the biggest tech state comes and says that they want to be like Arkansas, so really the credit goes to you for that tremendous leadership,” she said, referring to Hutchinson.
Still, despite all the successes, 37% of Arkansas high schools don’t offer the course because no students are interested.
“It’s students who don’t believe they can,” Hutchinson said. “It’s superintendents who are not believing in the importance of computer science education. Therefore, while it is offered in that school pursuant to our mandate, it is being offered by online courses, and that’s not inspiring students.”
Hutchinson said participation in Sheridan increased from one student when the class was offered through Virtual Arkansas to 60 students two years after it hired a teacher.
He praised teachers like Gerri McCann, a French teacher from Manila who learned coding. In a panel discussion, McCann said her first class had seven students. Four went on to major in computer science and three in engineering. The next year, 45 students were taking the class. Now she teaches four computer science classes and has reduced the number of French classes to three.
Secretary of Education Johnny Key said the education community has feared the law was another unfunded mandate, and some math and science teachers don’t want to cede that course credit to computer science. He said the governor personally has called superintendents at schools with low participation rates.
Hutchinson said he embarks on two coding tours each year and has led more than 70 assemblies to encourage interest in coding. When a school district isn’t successfully implementing the course, “the key ingredient is creating the demand among the students because teachers and superintendents will always respond to the needs of students,” he said.
Hutchinson said building computer coding programs in grades K-8 helps increase demand because students get interested in coding early and then have expectations for quality and options.
He said other keys to success include making coding a priority, having competitions, working with private sector partners, and ensuring students can see the practical benefits of the class.
“This is about hope and dreams of our students, and it is about our economy, ensuring that our state and your state is a leader in technology companies,” Hutchinson said.
Owen pointed out that industry partners helped write the academic standards, the first time that had been done. He said Arkansas will emphasize cybersecurity skills in the future.
Also speaking at the event was Hadi Partovi, founder and CEO of Code.org, which advocates for computer science classes in schools. Partovi said that in 2013, 15 states had one pro-computer science policy – that it should count for graduation credit. Arkansas was not one of them. Now 49 states and Washington, D.C., have a pro-computer science policy, the exception being Maine.
However, he said the growth in the number of new schools offering the classes has slowed each of the past three years.