Educators, Tech Industry Supporters In NM Push For More Computer Science Education

Apr 24, 2018

Paige Prescott, President of CSTA-NM has been advocating for more computer science education in New Mexico.
Credit Anthony Moreno

The State of New Mexico does not have a statewide computer science education plan. Educators and professionals in the tech sector are calling for more computer science education in the state.

Paige Prescott has taught computer science in New Mexico and outside the United States. For years, she has been working with educators, the tech sector, and lawmakers to pass legislation to expand computer science in New Mexico.

Prescott is President of the Computer Science Teachers Association of New Mexico. The organization in 2017 worked to get the state legislature to pass Senate Bill 134, which allowed for high school students to take CS courses for math or science credit towards graduation. The legislation was later vetoed by Governor Susana Martinez and is in legal limbo. Prescott says the legislation had major support.

“The business community was there saying this is important, we had the unions saying we support this, we had school districts saying they wanted it,” Prescott said.

Many students in the state do not have access to a computer science course. Prescott says the law they worked on would have helped administrators schedule the courses.

“So, right now there is not enough incentives for schools to schedule a computer science class and to support a computer science program. So, by moving it towards something that does count towards a graduation requirement either a math and science credit. The principals and others have the ability to say ‘well this is important’ and so they can schedule it that way,” Prescott says.

New Mexico isn’t the only state lacking in computer science options. A 2016 Information Technology and Innovation Foundation Report tells the story.  It a study of high school transcripts in 2009 showed only 19 percent of high school seniors took some form of computer class, down six percentage points from 2000. The report also showed major gender gaps. Only 14 percent of female students took a computer course compared to 24 percent of males.

In a Skype interview, Sean Roberts, Director of State Government Affairs with said having foundational knowledge of computers is a 21st century skill of life, and when states pass policy to offer computer science as a credit it opens doors to traditionally underrepresented minorities and female students.

“When it counts towards graduation requirements, you naturally have more students that can take that as part of their regular schedule so you increase diversity of participation with those types of policies,” Roberts said.

Roberts says passing computer science standards is also an important part of understanding what computer science is.

“Computer science is not being a user of technology or being able to use apps, although that's certainly important, and it’s not keyboarding which again, is an important skill for students to have, but that's not what we're talking about when we talk about computer science.”

Sean Roberts says Arkansas has expanded computer science access across the state and Indiana and Wyoming have also passed bills to expand computer science in grades K-12. 

Anthony Owen is Director of Computer Science Education in Arkansas, which according to some CS educators is the “gold standard.” Owen says expanded computer science education beyond high school is also important.

“We saw that if we only focused on that, we would continue down the road that the computer science community seems to have a problem with right now, which is overrepresentation of white and male individuals in not only the classes but in the industry.”

Owen says Arkansas has dedicated $10 million dollars over the next four years to increasing computer science education. He says the state has established professional learning hubs for teachers to learn CS Skills  to address a shortage of trained computer science educators. 

Sean Roberts says that having the teacher capacity to teach CS Skills is a major part of CS education policy. 

"We're only going to go as far as teachers take us on this," Roberts says. 

To attract different industries looking for tech savvy employees, nearby states like Colorado have passed CS funding measures and are working on setting up computer science standards. While Texas requires that all high schools offer computer science education. Roberts says these tech positions cross all sectors of employment.

“In Wyoming, recently I had the pleasure to meet a student whose lived on a ranch his whole life. He actually developed an app for his family ranch to track cattle vaccinations and parental lineage. Instead of keeping it on yellow notebook paper, now his family has another tool at their disposal that’s going to save them time and money,” said Roberts.

Jennifer Nevarez is with New Mexico Tech Works; her organization trying to build a pipeline for education, enterprise and employment opportunities in New Mexico. I met her in Santa Fe where she told me it’s critical for the state to offer more CS education, because technology is everywhere.

“You’ll find it in cars, industrial applications, you’ll find tech in healthcare, in development,” Nevarez says.

Matt Brown, is Santa Fe’s Director of Economic Development; he says a more computer science savvy workforce will help grow companies in the tech sector.

“All of them (tech companies) are reliant in some ways to different aspects of computer science from basic programming to interface design to AI and…computational analysis that is way over my head. At every kind of level that type of knowledge and skills would be incredibly beneficial to that industry inside of Santa Fe,” Brown said.

In New Mexico, a court may decide the future of SB134, the bill allowing CS to count for math or science credit toward graduation. Paige Prescott says it was unfortunate the Governor’s office did not give a reason why the bill was vetoed, but she has hope.

“I was told that the lemonade out of the lemons was that it kept computer science in the news and it kept people being aware that this is an issue, and hopefully it will grow that awareness,” says Prescott.

While many students, educators, and the tech industry await the next step, progress continues.  School districts, tech learning programs, and dedicated teachers continue to do their part to ensure that some New Mexico students have an opportunity to gain CS Skills.