Computer science becoming staple in tri-state schools

Aliyah Johnson is taking her first computer science class this year, but her interest in coding stretches back much further.

The Dubuque Senior High School junior learned a bit about the discipline in elementary school and became obsessed with it after she learned some coding basics during a summer enrichment program. Now, in Advanced Placement computer science, she is learning about all the things that happen behind the screen of a computer.

“It was just great to have a class in high school where I could learn more in-depth coding,” she said.

While Dubuque Community Schools officials have offered the AP computer science course for some time, they have turned their attention in recent years to expanding computer science offerings to students in elementary, middle and high school.

The district is among several local school systems that have created new opportunities for students to learn computer science. At the same time, states are increasingly recognizing its importance by adding requirements for schools to teach the subject.

“As we advance technologically in our world, we also broaden our view of what computer science is, and we need to make sure that that is accessible to all kids,” said Julie Lange, the Dubuque district’s director of digital literacy.

An increasing focus

Dubuque district officials have added opportunities to learn about computer science to their schools in recent years, with more offerings still in the works.

Two years ago, introductory computer science was added as a component of seventh- and eighth-grade exploratory classes, which are taken by the vast majority of students, said David Moeller, the district’s educational support leader in career and technical education. Officials also added a computer science principles course at the high school level.

Starting in elementary school, students learn about computer science through activities such as working with robotics or visiting with representatives of local businesses, Lange said. She is also in the beginning stages of developing and standardizing more explicit computer science education for elementary-aged students.

“There’s so many ways that you can teach computer science,” she said

States likewise have put an emphasis on including such education in school curricula.

An Iowa law signed last year will require schools to develop a K-12 computer science plan by July 1, 2022. The law includes requirements to offer instruction in the subject in elementary and middle school and to offer a semester of computer science in high schools.

A bill that passed both houses of the Illinois General Assembly this month would require the state to adopt computer science standards and require high schools to offer computer science.

In Wisconsin, school districts are required to have an instructional program that teaches students about the subject, state education officials said.

Part of daily life

CeAnn Palmer, a business and information technology instructor at Maquoketa Valley High School in Delhi, Iowa, is in her third year with the district. She has added two more computer science courses since she started teaching there.

The district already had strong computer science opportunities in middle school, so she sought to continue that with older students.

“My next goal is increase females (in computer science classes), build excitement and reduce the fear about coding, and as long as I can do that, I will be very happy with where the program’s at,” Palmer said.

Zachary Lynn, a business teacher in Potosi (Wis.) School District, started offering a computer science course last year and then an AP class in the subject this year. He said the world in which students live will have a greater and greater emphasis on advanced technology.

“That’s really the future of (where) jobs are going,” he said. “Even if they’re not directly working in coding or programming, they’re going to be working in workplaces that are very much going to be very digital for the most part.”

Bob Oberfoell, who teaches computer science, robotics and chemistry at Wahlert Catholic High School in Dubuque, plans to start working toward his computer science teaching endorsement with the help of funds received from a state grant. With that training, he intends to start offering more courses in the subject.

“Computer science is an important part of our daily lives now … so it’s important that we offer that, that kids understand how to use it properly and what it is,” he said.