Northern Wyoming News - Serving the Big Horn Basin for over 100 years

By Jillian Balow

Making the case for computer science

All this talk of economic diversity in Wyoming - it's critical.


February 8, 2018

All this talk of economic diversity in Wyoming - it's critical. And key to every conversation is education: How do we prepare and retain a workforce to keep our state strong for years to come? There is a bold answer that will lead more Wyoming students to higher education and prosperous career options: computer science.

Computer science is not learning how to use a word processor or create a spreadsheet. Computer science is the foundation for every career of the future and includes programming, computational thinking, data science, networking, cybersecurity, robotics, IT, and machine learning.

While visiting Wyoming schools recently, I met one savvy sixth-grade boy who combined reading, math, and basic programming skills to build smartphone games - this was how he earned his spending money. Understandably, most of us from Generation X and beyond have trouble wrapping our heads around this. Nonetheless, computer science is a critical skill set that all students need to build starting from an early age.

When I entered office in 2015, I discovered some alarming data. In the 2015-16 school year, there were only three Wyoming students that passed the advanced placement computer science exam. For me, this left but one glaring question: Does Wyoming take the lead on computer science education or do we fall behind?

My chief of staff reminds me that persistence is key to policymaking. While I know this to be true, my impatience often gets the best of me. Persistence became my refrain at a 2015 Joint Education Committee meeting when my proposal to add computer science into the Wyoming educational basket of goods did not gain any traction.

Early in 2015, I convened a career readiness council whose key recommendation was to up the ante on computer science education in grades K-12. Also, a team at the Wyoming Department of Education and I worked diligently to rekindle or build new partnerships with the University of Wyoming, Governor Mead's office, business, the technology industry, computer science education leaders, community colleges, and key legislators. We affirmed a common goal: increase participation and access to high quality computer science education in grades K-12.

Fast forward one year. The Joint Education Committee moved forward our refined computer science legislative proposal. The 2017 bill required high school students to take four, instead of three, years of math and allowed computer science to count as a math credit. While well-received by the committee, the bill died on the floor during the session. We persisted and before the 2017 session ended, the Joint Education Committee added computer science education as an interim priority.

Never one to wait for things to happen, I embraced computer science as a key initiative and grew the "Hour of Code" event statewide, spotlighted great technology teachers, partnered with Gannett Peak and others in the tech industry to stand up "Coders of the West" for teachers and students, worked to streamline licensure for computer science teachers, and convened a computer science task force. Governor Mead, Wyoming's ENDOW council, and Wyoming EXCELS also stood in public support of computer science and took deliberate steps to move the initiative forward. Recently, I was honored by the national State Education Technology Directors Association for my efforts related to advancing this computer science initiative.

Today, after almost three years of raising awareness about computer science, and other states leaping ahead, we have a rare momentum. We spent a lot of time with the Joint Education Committee as well as the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration discussing the importance of computer science in K-12 classrooms. Next week, when the Wyoming Legislature convenes they will consider two committee-sponsored bills that add computer science into the educational basket of goods, one going to the House and one to the Senate. It has been a long road, but we are almost there!

One year ago, I dedicated a guest column like this to educational funding. Still a crisis in our state today, our funding woes must never take the place of advancing our educational system and the future of our state. Computer science education is relevant to the current and future economy and is critical to the well-rounded education every Wyoming student deserves.

We have come a long way in two and a half years from a radical idea that could have gone unrealized without the dogged persistence of myself and others. Governor Mead along with a few key legislators, education leaders, and business leaders shepherded the idea into a viable draft bill ready for introduction in the 2018 Legislature. Please let your legislators know how important it is that we offer computer science to all kids in Wyoming. I, along with many others, stand at the ready to support districts in their implementation of this effort-this is something that can and must be done.

Jillian Balow is the Wyoming State Superintendent of Public Instruction.


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