Va. program targets computer science education

Richmond Times-DispatchJuly 13, 2014 

— Using computers and knowing computers are not the same thing, even for the digital native generation, computer science education advocate Rebecca Dovi says.

Computer science makes up most of the "T" for technology in STEM education and has become a more desired skill in jobs across dozens of industries with higher starting salaries.

To encourage early participation in Virginia schools to compete with world markets, CodeVA will be training Richmond-area teachers how to incorporate computer science and boost Advanced Placement exam participation through Code.org.

The organization successfully helped lobby the General Assembly this year to count computer science classes as science credits toward graduation instead of just math or elective credits. This gives school systems more incentive to offer the classes, Dovi said.

Dovi was a computer science teacher at Patrick Henry High School in Hanover County for 15 years while working to expand computer science education on the state and national level.

"It's a big piece of literacy in the 21st century," she said.

Last year, 1,655 students in 115 Virginia schools took the AP Computer Science A exam, or about 1 percent of exam takers in the state. That's up from 184 students, or 0.07 percent of AP test takers, in 2004.

Hanover's computer science program started with a programming class in 1983 after a teacher pushed to include it in every high school.

Once teachers have the tools they need, the culture around computer science at a school changes dramatically, she said. Other programs may focus on children who don't get that education at school, but CodeVA's hope is to boost the school systems.

"It's very teacher-dependent," Dovi said in reference to computer science programs. "If you don't have someone pushing for it, it dies out."

Henrico County was the first in the country to launch a one-to-one laptop program for high school students in 2001. But knowing how to program, code and create on a computer is more valuable than using it for research and word processing, Dovi said.

Code.org, a nonprofit seeking to boost women and minority student participation in computer science, will fund the teacher training. Meanwhile, CodeVA will search for corporate and private funding for children's computer camps. The prices for camp are modeled after the pay-it-forward approach of TOMS shoes — one fee also will fund part of a scholarship for another child.

A salary survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers showed the 2013 average starting salary for students with computer science degrees at $61,741.

Computer engineering came higher at $70,300. But the number of students completing computer science degrees dropped 11 percent from 2003 to 2012.

Maggie Smith will lead the art aspect of the program, connecting projects like weaving to understanding pixels as a grid. It's a reflection of the debates going on in the craft world about handmade creativity and machine-made creativity, she said.

Before joining the team, Smith taught children's camps at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond and contracted with organizations for art projects.

"I'm seeing more of a human side to the technological process. . Computer science is literally a different language," Smith said. "Art can bridge between different languages."

Teachers from all but two Richmond city high schools and all but one Henrico high school will attend CodeVA's five-day training at Hermitage High School at the end of this month. About 10 teachers from other counties also will attend.

The group will open a storefront at East Broad and North Third streets, where the training and camps will happen. Dovi hopes the downtown location will provide easy access for students from across the Richmond region to foster diversity in the industry.

"If we can create this pipeline for kids to take these classes and take these jobs, that would be my dream," Dovi said. "Plus, it's fun."

Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com

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