Stop talking about the need for computer science and start teaching it

Until recently, the basic skills that we are all taught in elementary and secondary school have given us an adequate foundation to lead us through much of daily life.

If you could read, you could learn and follow directions. If you could do math, you could manage your finances or have a successful business. If you could write, you could communicate clearly and advocate for yourself or others.

But the world is changing so fast that these foundational elements of education are no longer enough. At a time when computers increasingly control every aspect of our daily lives – both on the job and at home – the lessons we teach students must adapt to where the world is going, not where it has been.

Because of this, computing education must be part of every core curriculum, from elementary school through college. But teaching all students computing will require a major mind-shift – mostly among educators, who have never learned the subject themselves.

At a time when computers increasingly control every aspect of our daily lives – both on the job and at home – the lessons we teach students must adapt to where the world is going, not where it has been.

A recent Gallup Poll found that 91 percent of parents want their children to study computer science. However, only one in four schools teaches computer programming.

So how do we stop talking about the need for computer science education and actually start teaching the subject?

First, we need to educate the educators about the importance of computing overall and how it can no longer only be the domain only of geeks, boys, or those who want to grow up to be software engineers.

Today, the line between white-collar and blue-collar jobs is fading fast. The tools traditionally associated with factory work, for example, are rapidly evolving from manually controlled machines to computer-enabled devices.

For example, if the heating and air-conditioning system in a house is acting up but it has sensors and sends performance data to the manufacturer, a remote technician may be able to service it from a computer rather than in person.

We’ve reached a point where every job from NASA to nursing requires a better understanding of computational processes and computer science.

The “nice-to-have” or “competitive advantage” skill is no longer an option; it’s now a requirement. This is because any domain in which people make decisions, monitor situations or take action based on information has been dramatically impacted by advances in computing.

Professionals across industries will achieve the most success when they understand not only their job function, but also the technology now required to carry it out.

Further, there is a severe shortage of computer science professionals to fill jobs like cybersecurity roles, putting both our national security and personal privacy at risk. According to Code.org, there will be an estimated 1 million more computing jobs than applicants who can fill them by 2020.

There are also more than 500,000 open computing jobs nationwide, but less than 43,000 computer science students graduated into the workforce in 2016. While this education should begin in elementary school, colleges also must align their core curriculum with this new foundational skill to close the gap.

Of course, this skills gap also applies to the K-12 teachers and we need to figure out ways – even if it involves using technology – to bring computing classes to them and their students.

Another reason why computer science education is essential for our nation’s long-term economic success is that it will drive technological awareness and advancement. Americans will need the basic knowledge of how computers process information and control the machines and the flow of information around us.

But right now we aren’t fully engaged with making the most of technology’s benefits and are certainly not challenged to continue its advancement. Our nation is one of technology consumers, but we must also be one of technology creators.

We need computational engineers, leaders and teachers to address the widening skills gap and help foster a greater knowledge of computing across industries.

Finally, by offering computer science education to all students we can improve critical thinking across the board. Computing in its simplest form addresses a problem through a step-by-step approach or algorithm that then arrives at the best answer.

By introducing computing from a young age and through the college core curriculum, students are provided with a universally applicable way of thinking critically and analyzing information.

We’ve reached a crossroads within our educational system. Just as technology has changed the way we teach, we must now change the topics we teach. Computing has to be a fundamental skill we imbue in students from their earliest days in the classroom, and one that we carry through to the college level to impact students’ preparedness for careers.

The next generations – who won’t know a world without connected, digital devices – should be in the driver’s seat when it comes to technology, not indifferently unaware of the computer science behind it.

Aaron F. Bobick is Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis, which recently hosted the annual Computer Science for All Summit on October 16-17, 2017.