Guest Blog by Caleb Fristoe, Program Manager for CodeTN at Great Schools Partnership
Chances are over the last three years, you’ve heard or read in passing about the urgent need for increased secondary STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education in American schools. Or maybe you’ve just intuited the institutional distress around education in general. Celebrities, politicians (the presidential bloodbath, specifically), and industry leaders alike have all joined in the chorus that has quickly reached a cultural crescendo. STEM’s crown jewel: computer science (CS), that most magical skill set that continues to invade every area of industry, culture, and personal life, with unprecedented ease—a contemporary alchemy we’ve all come to admire, but not fully understand. From the tepid appeals of will.i.am to the multi-billion-dollar investment of the U.S. government, CS has now become the de facto referent for workforce development, education, and American competitiveness.
The Talent Band-Aid
HackerRank, a ranking and talent recruitment platform for computer engineers, recently released a comprehensive analysis of its 1.5 million active developers entitled, “Which Country Would Win in the Programming Olympics?” Overall, their findings were predictable. China and Russia scored the most talented developers. Chinese programmers outscored all other countries in mathematics, functional programming, and data structures challenges, and the Russians dominated algorithms, the most popular and competitive arena. The U.S managed to rank 28th overall and didn’t crack the top five in any of the fifteen additional domain areas.
While these findings are hardly surprising, the analysis does provide an insight into just how far behind the U.S. is in mobilizing both its educational and corporate institutions with any sense of urgency. The most glaring oversight when taking into account the U.S. and its ranking was the cost of labor. Or, the amount of money spent by American corporations to lure foreign talent to the table. As “homegrown” talent withers, competitive advantage remains manageable through large investments in skilled developers who are willing to help the U.S. essentially stave off the tide of domestic atrophy, by simply pulling a paycheck.
By 2018, 51% of all STEM jobs are projected to be in computer science. Yet only 19% of students have been exposed to a computer science course in America. A fact, perhaps, that reinforces the need for U.S. companies to keep a tight rein on developers for hire. Rather than investing locally—a process that may not provide results for 5-10 years—they instead opt for short-term solutions: more pay. But more pay is not the answer for developing talent, especially in areas that lack the resources to court such talent.
Make America Make Again
A few months back the Ray Kurzweil-cum-Joel Osteen “thought leader” Alec Ross came to enlighten Knoxville’s leadership community on The Industries of the Future. Ross, a tech policy advisor at the State Department under Hilary Clinton, ended his plenary session by answering a hypothetical question posed by the moderator: “Alec if I made you Mayor for the day and gave you $10 million dollars, where would you invest it?” Without hesitation, he said, “I would invest every penny of it teaching every single student in Knox County School how to code. Period. There’s no greater return on investment.” On the surface this sniffs of a statement so obvious that it needn’t be uttered, but upon further reflection, it amounts to a call-to-action (or maybe even a slap in the face). The call was primarily one for education. Every other country in the HackerRank survey teaches computer science earlier, and with greater intensity, than the U.S. Estonia teachers CS to all students, starting in first grade. Vietnam teaches all students CS starting in second grade, and in 2016 Finland made CS a mandatory part of its curriculum, beginning in primary school (kindergarten).
If it is a worthwhile investment and adds to the talent base, then 1. where’s the money for the massive hypothetical investment that Ross says is so crucial? And 2. where’s the sense of urgency around addressing this revelation? The short answer is 1. It’s already here, and it’s fragmented, and 2. we don’t really see this “revelation” as a revelation. Sure, there are small pockets of investment taking place, but they tend to be limited, one-off efforts around awareness, not training. And therein lies the problem: knowledge of the need for CS seems to be equated with training. It is not. On the whole, there’s a disconnect between what we think CS is and what it actually is. It is not solely Twitter, Facebook, or the development of an app idea that your aunt has at Thanksgiving. Yes, they are a part of the technical framework, but they are lightyears from totalizing. In fact, they’re anomalous at best.
Tennessee can position itself as a leader in STEM education. Knoxville could serve as the vanguard for secondary and post-secondary CS training and education in the south. From UT and Pellissippi State to Oak Ridge to the host of local foundations (Haslam, East TN, Clayton, etc.), it’s here, we have it. It being, the necessary institutional framework to uniformly acknowledge that computer science education and development are the primary workforce issues of the next hundred years. Failing to take action on such a fundamental root cause (job training and development) will continue to abet and increase joblessness, disenfranchisement, and threaten the legacy we hope to give future generations of East Tennesseans (our kids). That is unless we—the parents, teachers, administrators, elected officials, executives of this community–choose to do something about it. The future is already happening.