As Wyoming lawmakers and education officials debated adding computer science to schools, a Kelly Walsh High School counselor thought of the two women who were miles of code ahead of the curve.
“I said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a great program that’s been here for years and years and years!’” Marial Choma said last week.
She turned somewhat apologetically to Rebecca Underwood, who has been teaching computer science at the school for 30 years.
“Sorry, but it has been. Not to date you, but.”
Underwood and her fellow instructor Becky Byer are the computer science teachers at the school. Underwood taught Byer in years past, and both write code for Texas Instruments, the technology giant known to many students for its brick-length calculators.
Notably — obviously — they’re also both women in a field that, at least nationally, is male-dominated. They said that’s helped bring more female students into their classes, which have come a long way since Underwood started.
“When I first started, we taught Apple Basic, believe it or not,” she said, as a reporter nodded and pretended to understand. “That was the language. We were on Apple IIs and we taught Fortran and Pascal.”
As programming advanced, the teachers adapted, adding Java and other languages.
Byer is teaching several computer science classes as Underwood readies for retirement (both teach math classes, as well). They’ve had students put games on the iTunes Store, create virtual reality programs and go on to work for Microsoft.
Underwood has been an advocate for computer science in Wyoming, she said. Not only does it teach problem-solving skills, but it can click for some students who otherwise struggle. She’s reached out to lawmakers, urging them to push it more in schools.
Last week, the Joint Interim Education Committee took steps to make that happen. Lawmakers advanced a bill that would allow computer science to take the spot of a science credit for graduation requirements, or a math credit for the Hathaway Scholarship.
Underwood said she was happy that the state is moving forward with computer science but expressed concerned about the graduation requirement.
“You’re looking at one more thing that kids have to do, to pass, to go on,” she said.
She said that another obstacle is districts having enough teachers certified to teach the courses they may have to start offering. She said she wasn’t certified when she started, and it may be an impediment to finding qualified teachers.
Still, she and Byer praised the benefits of computer science and its ability to teach students the benefits of problem solving.
“We had four kids I know graduate from the University of Wyoming last year with computer science degrees that all make more than we do now,” Underwood said, laughing. “But they came in ahead.”
Such is the pitch by computer science proponents: Being able to code is going to be a much-needed skill as the economy hurtles into the future.
“I want to be an engineer, and in the engineering field, programming is becoming a really big topic ... so I figured to get a head start, I should probably start now,” said Kelly Walsh senior Abi Schoup, who sat outside of one of Byer’s classes last week.
Senior Devin Brewer said he wanted to work with artificial intelligence in the future. He had rebuilt the classic game “Space Invaders” and turned it into an iPhone app.
Two other programming students — senior Madi Czellecz and junior Grace Ritchie — didn’t plan on going into a programming field. When asked the worst question in the world — what do you want to do with your lives — Ritchie said she was interested in optometry, and Czellecz had thought about athletic training and becoming a sonographer.
Still, they all said that regardless of what they do, what they’ve learned in programming will benefit them going forward.
“The world’s going to tech. Everything’s turning to technology,” Schroup said. “So having even a basic knowledge of this stuff, it will be beneficial for almost any career you go into.”