When it comes to computer science education, Illinois takes a back seat to most states, according to a report by the College of Education at the University of Illinois.
The big hurdle for Illinois is “a massive educator shortage,” said Raya Hegeman-Davis, co-author of the report and research coordinator in the Bureau of Educational Research at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
A considerable number of high schools, many in smaller rural districts, still do not offer basic computer science or AP level classes.
“School districts can’t implement computer science if they don’t have anybody trained to teach computer science,” Hegeman-Davis said.
Hegeman-Davis maintains the state is doing students a disservice if it does not introduce them to the basics of computer science before they get to college.
“Illinois universities have some of the top computer science programs in the world. But if we aren’t training our K-12 students, by the time they get to college, they are already at a disadvantage. Kids from highly resourced schools, where they are able to join coding clubs and take AP classes, are starting out in college at more advanced levels,” she said.
She compares Illinois’ efforts to Arkansas, which has made computer science a priority.
“(Gov. Asa Hutchinson) has really done an amazing job in promoting computer science classes at every grade level,” Hegeman-Davis said. “In Arkansas, they have really focused on getting families and students to push for computer science because that puts pressure on the school boards.”
By state law, Arkansas public high schools are required to provide coding classes. In Illinois, however, a considerable number of high schools, many in smaller rural districts, still do not offer basic computer science or AP level classes.
Inspiring children to study computer science and other STEM subjects is much easier when the education starts in elementary school, Hegeman-Davis said. Programs like Scratch — where young children learn coding by playing games and moving boxes around — give younger children a taste of what problem-solving using computers is like.
“It’s about breaking down problems into small chunks, and identifying how those pieces fit together, to then solve a larger issue. That’s all that computing is,” Hegeman-Davis said. “It is how we break things down and look at them in a logical pattern. And then use those steps to solve a larger problem.”
The message that Illinois children need to take away from elementary school is that computer science is not just for math nerds.
“Everybody can use computers to solve problems,” Hegeman-Davis said.
When 2021 kindergarteners graduate from high school in 13 years, 70 percent of jobs will require computer skills, an Oxford University study has found.
“Almost any job you can imagine will have some level of computer science involved in it, whether it is knowing how to update a website or understanding what is happening inside the computer,” Hegeman-Davissaid said. “To successfully navigate even entry-level jobs, everybody will need some grasp of the principles of computer science, an understanding of the basics of computer science, and the very basics of coding.”
Agriculture is one sector of the economy where future jobs will require a digitally trained workforce.
“Farming has really changed. Companies like John Deere don’t talk about themselves as agriculture companies anymore. They talk about themselves as tech companies,” she said. “If you work on a farm, you will use computer science. It’s not just a Silicon Valley issue.”