- Associated Press - Saturday, May 10, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - Their lives swirl in technology, but the nation’s high school students spend little time studying the computer science that is the basis of it all. Few are taught to write lines of code, and few take classes that delve into the workings of the Internet or explain how to create an app.

In a world that went digital long ago, computer science is not a staple of U.S. education, and some schools do not even offer a course on the subject, including 10 of 27 high schools in Virginia’s Fairfax County and six of 25 in Maryland’s Montgomery County.

The subject is also not a staple of high school education nationally, a look at AP exam numbers suggests.

“It’s shocking how little there is,” said Rebecca Dovi, who has taught computer science for 17 years in Virginia schools and is an advocate for more courses statewide. Even when schools offer classes, she said, there are relatively few of them. “You might have one person teaching it in a school of 1,400 kids.”

Though computer science can lead to high-paying technology jobs and boost skills for a variety of fields, many students get little exposure to the subject in class. Across the Washington region’s school systems, fewer than one in 10 high school students took computer science this academic year, according to district data.

But, slowly, that might be starting to change. Spurred in part by national initiatives, some local districts are urging more students to take computer science courses and trying to address a glaring gender and racial disparity. By next school year, school leaders expect more computer science courses in Montgomery high schools, more enrollment in courses in Virginia’s Loudoun County and more schools offering classes in the District of Columbia.

And Charles County, Maryland, with 26,500 students, has committed to bring such learning into every grade starting in the fall, in partnership with the nonprofit Code.org, which works to increase access to computer science in schools.

“We really believe the skills they will get from coding will help them in whatever career they choose,” said Charles County Superintendent Kimberly Hill, who pointed out that such learning requires logic and “habits of the mind” that have broader uses.

Computer science is not just for math whizzes and budding techies, she said.

“Typically it’s male. Typically it’s white male,” Hill said, adding that it begs the questions: “Where are all the girls? Where are all the African American and Hispanic kids?”

Under the county’s new plan, she said, the thinking is, “You can learn how to code, like you can learn how to read and learn how to write.”

Among the reasons many schools do not have computer science: It is not a priority core subject, and computer science teachers can be hard to find, with some drawn to higher-paying tech jobs. While an increasing number of states allow the courses to count as a math or science credit, they are usually not a requirement and are sometimes viewed by students as boring or intimidating.

Many parents mistake the computers they see in schools - and the seeming ease with which teenagers manage their devices - as a signs of computer science understanding.

“These skills are as fundamental as algebra,” said Marie desJardins, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County who is leading a project to train 100 computer science teachers in Maryland and the District over a three-year period.

During the next decade, about 70 percent of new jobs in science, technology, engineering and math fields will be for computing professionals, desJardins said.

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