Podcast: The Case for Improving U.S. Computer Science Education, With Pat Yongpradit

December 7, 2020

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Despite the growing use of computers and software in every facet of our economy, not until recently has computer science education begun to gain traction in American school systems. The current focus on improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in U.S. schools has disregarded differences within STEM fields. Indeed, the most important STEM field for a modern economy is not only one that is not represented by its own initial in the acronym “STEM,” but also the field that the fewest high school students study and the one with the most room for improvement, by far: computer science. Rob and Jackie discuss the state of computer science education in the United States and abroad—and why policymakers need to provide support—with Pat Yongpradit, chief academic officer for Code.org.




Rob Atkinson: Welcome to Innovation Files, I’m Rob Atkinson, president and founder of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. We’re a DC based think tank that works on technology policy.

Jackie Whisman: And I’m Jackie Whisman, I handle outreach at ITIF, which I’m proud to say is the world’s top ranked think tank for science and technology policy.

Rob Atkinson: And this podcast is about the kinds of issues we cover at ITIF from the broad economics of innovation, to specific policy and regulatory questions about new technologies. Today, we’re going to talk about computer science education. And despite surging demand, computer science education has only recently begun to gain traction in US school systems. In our view, policy makers at all levels of government should be expanding access to rigorous high quality courses in both high school and college. And today’s guest has a great perspective on this and I’m excited he’s with us.

Jackie Whisman: Pat Yongpradit is the chief academic officer for Code.org. A non-profit dedicated to promoting computer science education. He spent most of his career as a computer science teacher and has also written and consulted on technology curriculum at the local state and national level. And we’re so happy to have you here, Pat. Welcome.

Pat Yongpradit: Thank you for having me.

Jackie Whisman: So to kick things off, why don’t you give us an overview of code.org and its mission?

Pat Yongpradit: Code.org is a national and also international nonprofit. We started our work in 2013 and it all started with a video that our co-founder, Hadi Partovi and his brother Ali, decided to create, to promote computer science education. And they felt like they needed to give back to the world what they had received and what they used to build their success and their fortunes. And so they decided to create a video featuring a lot of computer science personalities, including very famous people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. And that video actually hit number one on YouTube for a day. And because of that, Hadi decided to make Code.org a real deal, education nonprofit, something beyond just promotion.

And so we promote computer science through events like the Hour of Code, which is one of the largest educational events on the planet. We advocate for computer science through state, national and sometimes international policy, and that’s where I spend most of my time. We create free curriculum, free tools, and we also run a large regional partner network of almost 60 partners nationwide that has provided professional development, in-person now for about well over a hundred thousand teachers over the last six years. And then all of that, the mission is to make sure that every student in every school has the opportunity to learn computer science.

Rob Atkinson: Pat, you have kind of a really, I think really important and cool role at Code.org. And that’s really help policymakers understand why this is so important and to make the needed changes that they should be making, including at high schools. And we’ve been focused on CS a lot at ITIF over the years. One of the reasons we think we need more and better is because while foreign talent is certainly important to the US economy in terms of CS and other STEM education roles, we can’t really rely on it in the long run. Folks may not want to come here eventually, they may stay home.

We saw that with Taiwan when they got richer, they didn’t come to the US as much, same with Korea. So the other reason I think is important is that is it’s a real opportunity for underrepresented groups. CS can provide good roles, good occupations, good wages for them. And also I think people miss this, CS skills are foundational in many ways for helping a variety of other professions. More and more professions are becoming data-driven and while you don’t need to be a CS engineer for them, having some level of CS literacy, if you will, can play a role in that. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Pat Yongpradit: Computer science playing a larger role in just literacy in general?

Rob Atkinson: Well, in terms of just, I think there’s a couple of ways to think about CS. One is just for kids who are going to be computer programmers or designers, and then there’s a sort of broader level of literacy. I guess, at the base level. It’s like, well, everybody should learn Word and PowerPoint. I’m talking about something between that and really, really knowing how to program an AI or something. Somewhere in the middle, that those generic skills are going to be more important is the thought.

Pat Yongpradit: Yeah. So I think it was the 80s when people really started realizing everyone should learn how to type and use Microsoft Word and things like that. And there was a big boom in computers in schools. And I was part of that boom. I remember the Apple IIe and things like that. I think digital literacy or computing literacy these days is very different than those base skills. And I think what it means is what you’re talking about, going closer to the creative side of computing and not just the using side of computing.

Pat Yongpradit: So whether that’s creating a game, an app, a website, or creating a new technology that will end up being used to create a vaccine for COVID, which I think has been done. I think there’s these MRNA vaccines that have been developed or are being developed, rely heavily on computing technology because they’re based off of genetic sequencing. So, whether it’s something like that or something easier, just creating a neighborhood website for a community event. The idea is that kids need to go beyond just the typing and the using these days.

Jackie Whisman: In the nineties, my computer science education just consisted of Oregon Trail and like a very primitive Jeopardy game that we would play. And that was it. And I’m sure Rob Atkinson, my boss, wishes a lot that I had access to better computer science education.

Rob Atkinson: Mine was on an IBM Selectric typewriter.

Jackie Whisman: Well, look at you now.

Pat Yongpradit: Yeah, I remember the first time actually. So, whenever I talk about why computer science, I could go to the economic arguments, which I think you, you touched on, then there’s the social equity arguments, which you also touched on. What I like to do is just talk about the amazing opportunity we have to shape our world these days because of the ability to shape the one and zero, the bit. And back in the day in terms of technology, people have to work with wood and steel and coal and steam and things that are really much harder to work with. Nowadays we can, from our phone, from a keyboard, from our home, we can create these amazing things. Whether you’re a kid, a five-year-old or you’re a 55 year old, you have access to the same technology that can really reshape the world. And so why wouldn’t we want more kids to have that experience and have that power at their fingertips?

Jackie Whisman: And how do you think we’re really doing as a nation? My daughter has access to an insane amount of technology and she’s pretty literate as a five-year-old already. But it seems like we’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s still a long way to go policy-wise as a country.

Pat Yongpradit: So, I do a little international policy. And at the international level, most countries that I deal with have a very strong ... well, when I say strong, I mean very centralized federal education system. Whereas, we are the United States of America, people forget that. And we have multiple departments of education. And so if I were to answer that question, I’d have to first compare us, the US, to other countries. And on the bright side, we have a huge community of people who care about students getting the opportunity to learn computer science. Whether that’s the CSforALL Consortium, which is a consortium of all these people or individual large nonprofits that work with each other, or state departments of supervisors and state departments of education, whether they’re officially computer science state supervisors or not so, we have a huge community of people working together. Code.org itself has the Code.org Advocacy Coalition, which is almost 100 organizations that work together to advance policy.

Whereas other countries might have a federal mandate from their central ministry of education, what they don’t have is the infrastructure that we do have. So I think we’re doing really great in terms of being able to offer professional development to teachers. In many states that professional development is funded through the state. Obviously there are federal funds through Perkins. So these things are positives. Obviously the negative is that right now still only 47% of high schools actually offer a foundational computer science course. So that stat I got from the “2020 State of Computer Science Education,” which Code.org, the Computer Science Teachers Association and the Expanding Computing Education Pathways Alliance, an NSF funded project just co-authored a month ago. So, less than half, that’s partly because we are the United States of America. States are doing their own thing and you can’t just command something like that.

Rob Atkinson: Sure. Although, yeah, I agree. It’s a combination of, first of all, the feds could incent, they could encourage, they could coordinate. And then obviously states have to figure this out on their own. We wrote a report a few years ago called the “Case for Improving U.S. Computer Science Education.”. And one of the points we made is that one of the reasons it’s hard in some places is that states, ever since the 1983 commission a report called “The Nation at Risk,” there was this view that if we don’t force kids to take more and more requirements, then somehow we’re going to get left behind. And from a lot of states, there’s very little room for electives. I see that here, we live in Montgomery County. And I know Pat used to teach in Montgomery County. My daughter has to take four years of English. Why?

Why four years of English? So, especially for kids who are really interested in CS and maybe want to take three years of CS or four years of CS, it’s very hard to do. And I’m just curious. I know you’ve been working with some states where they’ve allowed CS to count, for example, as a math requirement to open up a little bit more space, do you think we need to do more things like that?

Pat Yongpradit: I think states need to get more flexible around how they structure their graduation requirements. For example, I believe Connecticut, and I don’t know if they’ve already passed this. I remember when they were just proposing it. But Connecticut was a state that was going to create a STEM pool. So basically, there was a pool of, who knows, 18, 19, 20 different options. And you had to take eight of those options to graduate. And so rather than just dictating four years of this, four years of that, et cetera, et cetera, you get a whole pool of things to pick from, but you have to take multiple from that pool. And of course, the majority of kids will pick something obvious, like maybe biology, but then they don’t have to go on and take chemistry and this and that, and Earth science or whatever.

If they’re not interested, they can take other things. So that’s what I would suggest. Just creating pools for graduation requirements. And yes, computer science does count for math and science in many states. What’s interesting is that some states are now moving towards making computer science acquirement of its own. South Carolina has a one-year graduation requirement and computer science. Nevada has a half-year requirement. In Maryland, where we live, requires students to have some type of computational thinking experience by the end of eighth grade. So somewhere in middle school, some type of experience like that. It counts towards the school report card per ESA. And then at the high school level, there is a currently a technology credit, but actually Rob, some news for you, it’s been proposed by the Department of Ed to turn that into a computer science and engineering credit. So, no more of this vestigial woodshop tech credit experience, but something much more advanced and with more relevant options, computer science and engineering.

Rob Atkinson: It’s funny, one of the points that we’ve made in another report that we wrote called, “Refueling the U.S. Innovation Economy” was that about 80% of the jobs in STEM in the US economy are related to CS or engineering. And yet we don’t teach them formerly in high school, we teach biology, chemistry, and physics, which we started doing that I think in 1912 as I recall. So yeah, it’s gratifying to hear that these reforms are happening slowly, but we’re making progress. Another issue Pat, I wanted to ask you about is really an issue of quality. You and I met when you, when you were kind enough to actually tutor my high school son who was taking a computer science AP test and he passed, so that was obviously you did a great job with him and he’s actually employed now in a CS job in Silicon Valley.

So that whole thing worked the way it’s supposed to work, but overall, his high school experience ... not you, but the actual courses, they weren’t great. He wanted to learn all about encryption, but there was never that chance. He wanted to learn a little bit more theory and concepts. It was a lot of JavaScript programming. You think, first of all, is that an issue? Should we kind of have more advanced CS kind of capabilities? And secondly, how do we do that? Because it’s hard to get CS teachers.

Pat Yongpradit: Well, let’s just start with that. We need to see CS teachers. If we have CS teachers, then we can have CS teachers who increase their professional development and are able to offer those advanced courses. But right now, if you just have computer science, then you’re doing better than most schools. And that’s obviously what was David’s experience. And he’s just lucky that he got to take a computer science course. Now, since then, so that was 10 years ago, maybe something like that?

Rob Atkinson: Yep.

Pat Yongpradit: There’s been a big shift in how computer science curriculum is structured. I would say across the US, mainly because of two or three different things that have happened since then. So the production of the K-12 computer science framework, the CSDA 2017 standards, as well as the development of the advanced placement computer science principles course. What these have done is broadened what we think about in terms of computer science.

So beyond just programming in Java or Python, it hits things like encryption, data science, the impact, the ethical and social impact of computer science, internet networking, things like that. None of those, which I just described, were part of the traditional computer science classroom in high schools before these documents, these courses were created. So things have changed. And if you hop into I would say any, “high-level” high school, that offers rigorous curriculum, you’ll see that it most of the computer science curriculum is going beyond just traditional programming.

Rob Atkinson: Well, that’s great to hear.

Jackie Whisman: One of the criticisms of a lot of tech firms is that their CS workforce is just not as diverse as it should be or could be. But a lot of that lack of diversity is reflecting pipeline challenges, where fewer women and minorities are getting CS degrees. And I’m curious what you think we should be doing to improve that at the high school level?

Pat Yongpradit: At the high school level, the problem is not the high school level. I’d say if we were to really improve that issue, we’d have to start at the early middle school level where research has shown, in just general STEM research, as well as a bit of research in particular to computer science, that right around early middle school is when you see a big bifurcation in the interest among girls and boys in STEM and computer science.

So before then, about equal actually. And then right around early middle school, things change greatly. And there’s this huge gap that forms, that gap extends to high school. And it’s hard to convince a young woman to take computer science at that point, because if she looks at the class in high school, it’s mostly boys anyway, even now. But if you change the system and change the courses and change that girl’s perspective early on, she will be much more likely to take that high school course. So basically introducing computer science earlier is probably the answer.

Jackie Whisman: Yeah, it’s almost like a psychological shift that has to happen. I wasn’t expected to be interested in math and it was never ... sort of my mom and my grandmother were bad at math. So I was sort of expected to be bad at math too. And it was this kind of expectation that I would be really advanced in kind of the languages and the arts and things like that. And so that’s what I pursued. And I think that that’s true for a lot of women my age. And I hope that we kind of as a nation and a society kind of shift that for our daughters.

Pat Yongpradit: And you know what, so there was a Google-Gallup survey done in, well, just it was done in 2020, it was done before COVID hit. And they just released their results about a month or two months ago. And they found that teachers actually encouraged both girls and boys at equal, I’ll call them rates, equally. But parents don’t. And parents, surprise, surprise are encouraging their boys to take computer science more than the girls. And so there’s just a big opportunity for parents to encourage their daughters to take computer science.

Rob Atkinson: Pat, when we were, I don’t know, geez, it must be a year and a half ago. There was a panel that I was on and you were there as well. And I can’t remember the name of the group. It was an international group that assesses CS scores-

Pat Yongpradit: ICILS.

Rob Atkinson: pardon?

Pat Yongpradit: ICILS I believe, right? Was that it?

Rob Atkinson: I think so, ICILS.

Pat Yongpradit: Or the IEA?

Rob Atkinson: Yeah. What I was struck by one of the things that they did is they measured different measures of CS thinking and capabilities among high school kids. And to Jackie’s point, what was really interesting is there were a bunch of countries, not a lot, but there were countries there where the girls were doing better than the boys, which really tells you that it’s not some genetic thing inherently. You can do it, and these other countries have shown you can do it. These girls in the, in the high school level were outperforming the boys, in which case you would assume that would lead to similar performance in college, where they hopefully would go out and major in those as well. So it shows that it could be done if we just put our mind to it.

Jackie Whisman: It’s a confidence thing.

Pat Yongpradit: Yeah. It’s a confidence thing. Yeah.

Rob Atkinson: I was talking once to a woman, Janet Hugo, who leads the Arkansas science and math high school. I forget the name of it. And I always remember this comment. I said, “What’s special about these high schools?” She said, “One of the things that’s special about these high schools is the girls feel they’re able to do so much better in these high schools, because the expectation for girls is to do well in these high schools. And they don’t have all the other distractions.” I thought that’s interesting. So if some of it’s culture and environment. So maybe one last question, Pat. I know a lot of our listeners are in Washington or at the federal level at some way. And as you’ve said, a lot of this at state and local, counties, states. What are some things you think that Congress could do or should do that would help move the ball in the right direction here?

Pat Yongpradit: The last administration, which is still the current ministration, but that’ll be changing pretty soon. The last administration actually did a very good thing in that it there are these national grants being run out of the Department of Ed and one is called EIR, another one’s called SEED. And they actually prioritize, made computer science a competitive priority in those grants. So that’s one thing that the feds can do from the Department of Ed level, just continue to make computer science competitive priority.

In addition, there is the Computer Science For All Act, which basically provides money for pre-service education and teacher PD as well. So in service teacher, professional development money. That was proposed as part of Obama’s CS For All Initiative in 2016. It was to the tune of $4 billion. It was never going to be passed, but there is an opportunity for the federal government to make a big splash in computer science. I think a number of our legislators agree, like Jackie Rosen in Nevada. I think she is sponsoring the CS for All Act, but we’ll see how, if any of these big measures can get passed.

Rob Atkinson: Well, certainly, we’re going to be in a new political environment, obviously a different party in the White House. And then who knows how it’s going to go. But certainly one could hope that particularly around some of these critical challenges facing the country, COVID obviously being one, recovery being another, but really this whole notion of STEM education, CS in particular, both around opportunity and competitiveness and growth. Hopefully that could see some bipartisan working together, moving some things along. So keep our fingers crossed.

Pat Yongpradit: Yeah. Rob, and speaking of your audience folks out there who are listening to us. One of the easiest things probably is to just include computer science in some of the programs or offerings that are already out there. So I remember the ... I forgot what it was called, the STEM Act in 2015, something like that. It added computer science to the federal definition for STEM, which opened up a lot of things at the state level. For example, in Maryland, because of that, any STEM education program had to include computer science in it as well. So little things ... well, it’s not a little thing, but doing things like that really make a big difference at the state level. So if you’re a federal policy maker, just figuring out how to include computer science in what you’re already doing is one of the easiest and one of the most effective things to do in the short term.

Rob Atkinson: Yeah. And one last thing. What’s interesting is I think some members think, “Well, that CS thing, that’s really only for Silicon Valley, Boston maybe, Austin, Texas.” But there’s a report we wrote recently. It showed the number of CS jobs in each congressional district. And yeah, there aren’t as many maybe in Wyoming one, but there are still a bunch. CS jobs are all over the place. People working at banks, working at retail, working at hospitals, working in local government, CS is everywhere. So hopefully that understanding is growing. That it’s not just something that Silicon Valley needs.

Pat Yongpradit: Yeah. And working remotely now as well. And what job is easier to ... well, I don’t know about easier, but just makes the most sense on a computer? Computer science, I guess, remotely. It just makes sense. It’s all bits anyway, they’re being sent around.

Rob Atkinson: No, and I think a lot of the tech companies now saying, “Hey, if you want to be remote, you can, and we’ve seen it can work.” I think a lot of folks would be like, “Why am I living in a trailer in Silicon Valley with gazillion-dollar rent? Maybe I can go live in Wyoming in a nice little town.” And you’ll be near the mountains and have a nice reasonably sized house. So hopefully we’ll see more of that.

Jackie Whisman: While you’re giving Maryland a lot of compliments for its CS education initiatives, it’s worth noting that our “State New Economy Index,” which ranks states several metrics contributing to a robust, innovative economy consistently rates Maryland high. It’s in the top three, top five. And I don’t think that it’s investment in CS education is any coincidence.

Pat Yongpradit: Not a coincidence at all. Maryland has the third-highest high school rate of offering computer science. So the number one is Arkansas, 89%, Rhode island’s 86%, Maryland, 83% of our high schools offer computer science. And actually that data is from 2018, ‘19. So it’s not even from last school year. A bill passed HB281 in a while ago in 2018, requiring all of our high schools to offer computer science, 100% by next school year, actually. So I suspect that we actually will be very close to a 100% by next school year.

Rob Atkinson: No, that’s great.

Pat Yongpradit: Yeah.

Rob Atkinson: So Pat, thank you so much for being here. It’d be great to get together in person sometime, or we see each other around town at various CS and STEM events, but it was really great talking with you today.

Pat Yongpradit: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Jackie Whisman: The CS party crowd. You guys rub elbows?

Rob Atkinson: Oh yeah.

Jackie Whisman: It’s a huge scene. Thank you, Pat. And that is it for this week. If you liked it, please be sure to rate us and subscribe. Feel free to email us, show ideas or questions to [email protected]. You can find the show notes and sign up for our weekly email newsletter on our website. ITIf.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn @ITIFdc.

Rob Atkinson: And we have more episodes and great guests lined up new episodes will drop every Monday. So, we hope you’ll continue to tune in.

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Podcast: The Case for Improving U.S. Computer Science Education, With Pat Yongpradit