Technology

Students read through notes in August 2016 at Natrona County High School. Lawmakers are considering whether to make computer science into a graduation requirement. 

File, Star-Tribune

Lawmakers and educators have repeatedly discussed in recent months adding computer science to the educational program, a conversation taking place against a backdrop of budget cuts and a broader examination of schools in Wyoming.

The concept could take several forms and is being discussed by two different legislative committees. Computer science could be added into the basket of goods, meaning the broad content areas and skills K-12 students learn during their time in school. It could become a graduation requirement, being a substitute for a math, foreign language or science credit. It could be incorporated into career and technical education.

“I think we are early in the process really as a state,” said Brian Farmer, the executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association. “I think there’s going to be lots of good conversation about that in the coming months and the coming years.”

Though Farmer’s organization has not taken a position yet, the proposal has broad support: State Superintendent Jillian Balow and the Wyoming Department of Education have released multiple memos in favor of it. Members of the tech industry here testified in front of lawmakers twice in recent weeks, warning that Wyoming students risk being left behind. Sen. Hank Coe, the chairman of both education committees considering it, said he was “sold” on it. Other lawmakers also expressed support.

“Tech is the new oil,” House Speaker Steve Harshman said at a meeting last week.

“It’s frightening how behind the ball we are on computer science,” Rep. Pat Sweeney, who does not sit on the committee but regularly attends the meetings, told his fellow lawmakers.

Coe praised its potential to diversify the economy and develop a 21st-century workforce.

Legislative momentum?

That support has manifested itself into legislative action. In late September, the Joint Education Committee directed legislative staff to draft a bill adding computer science to the basket of goods. Last week, the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration — which is undertaking a broad examination of Wyoming education — made moves to potentially allow computer science to count as a graduation requirement and to insert it elsewhere in the basket.

Arguably, now is the time to consider the change. The recalibration committee is taking a deeper dive into the Wyoming education system than it has in the past — including looking into the basket of goods. But, at the same time, considering computer science adds to a workload that’s already immense and set on a timeline of just a few months.

Other, more significant barriers exist: There’s a dearth of qualified computer science teachers in Wyoming who can teach the classes. Attracting more is made more difficult by the fact that they can make three or four times as much working in private industry. The Professional Teaching Standards Board, which handles licensing educators here, has been working to expedite the certification process, Farmer said, but some superintendents have expressed skepticism.

On top of that, there’s the fact that Wyoming’s education system is currently in a budget crisis. The most recent estimates are that schools here will be in a $480 million hole in the next two-year budget cycle. As legislators have considered cuts, educators have warned that lawmakers might need to take something out of the basket of goods.

The education department presented to the recalibration committee a number of recommendations to incorporate computer science into the educational program without increasing costs. They noted that national projections suggest there will be 1.1 million open programming jobs by 2022 and that 93 percent of parents want their children educated in computer science (it’s unclear how many of those are Wyoming parents).

The recommendations included allowing computer science to count as a foreign language for some students and removing or combining other areas of the basket of goods.

Skepticism

But Sen. Chris Rothfuss, a Laramie Democrat, was skeptical that computer science could replace a foreign language.

“This is something I’ve been concerned about for a while,” he said. “But I’ve been programming in a number of computer languages for about 25 years ... and other than the fact that ‘computer language’ and ‘foreign language’ both have the word language — so I see where that came from” but they otherwise have next to zero similarities.

Dicky Shanor and Megan Degenfelder, staffers from the education department presenting the recommendations to the lawmakers last week, said the comments were duly noted.

There was more skepticism about the recommendations. Though the department had based them on the premise that they would integrate computer science into curriculum without increasing costs, there appeared to be no evidence — at least at the meeting — that was accurate.

“So then you’re not really confident that any of these suggestions would mitigate the costs of including computer science?” asked Rep. Cathy Connolly. “You don’t know what those costs are, what those savings would be at this point?”

“Correct,” Shanor replied.

Still, lawmakers were interested in pursuing the discussion further. The education committee will meet again in November, where they will likely consider the bill. The recalibration committee will also meet at the end of November.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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