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Despite computer science skills growing in demand, CTE remains an elective in most districts, with students never building coding skills.

How our district engages students in a CTE program

Despite computer science skills growing in demand, CTE remains an elective in most districts, with many students never experiencing the joy of coding

Over the past decade, industries across the world have voiced their concern over the lack of tech skills among high school and college graduates. At the end of 2020, there were an estimated 1.4 million unfilled computer science jobs; this figure continues to rise.

However, the education sector’s response is that currently less than half of high schools teach, and only 5 percent of students go on to further computer science study.

It’s not just about educating our students to take a computer science career path. Today, computer science skills are used and applied across all areas of the curriculum and a broad range of careers.

Therefore, in Humble Independent School District, we decided to address this issue by giving more students the opportunity to experience the excitement of computer science.

It wasn’t easy.

The challenges

As all schools recognize, teachers find it hard enough to fit a high-quality education of the core curriculum subjects into each day. A lot of students, especially girls, believe that CTE “isn’t for them” because “it’s too hard,” “too complicated” and “only involves sitting at a computer screen.” Added to this, there is no defined curriculum to teach to and, as with the gap in skills in the workforce, there is also a lack of teachers either qualified or wanting to teach computer science.

Something for everyone

So, in Humble, we wanted to offer enough courses to attract a wider range of students.

We started by painting a portrait of a graduate and the skills they need. Two of the most important attributes of a global citizen are having problem solving and critical thinking skills. To be a good critical thinker and problem solver, people need to be able to take any one task and structure it into manageable chunks, one of the main skills that is developed in computer science. Students who are problem solving orientated will always be able to adapt and thrive in this ever-changing world.

Through this initiative, we started offering our students 170 different CTE course; from cosmetology and cyber-security to automotive and robotics. Our belief is that if we offer them a wide range of opportunities, we’re more likely that they will elect to embark on a learning pathway and develop a deep understanding of an area of CTE.

Starting early

The next step was to introduce this from the early years.

In most elementary grades coding lessons start with game development, which is seen by many, including me, as the ideal way to introduce students to computer science. For the early years, Scratch is a popular option. The use of block-based programming gives these young kids an easy, visual entry into developing games. Many studies have shown that the simplicity of the Scratch environment may be the reason for higher engagement in the early years.

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There are a wide range of game development programs available for students in the early years, each with admirable advantages. However, the challenge is that as they progress through the elementary and early middle years, Scratch’s block-based programming doesn’t develop with them, leading many students to lose interest and drop out.

The other alternative is moving them on to text-based programming languages such as Unity and Java.  However, at the middle school stage this proves to be too complex and daunting, resulting in more students dropping out of CTE.

My colleague and CTE Coordinator Di Nardo “Dee” Bazile and I created a curriculum review committee that looked at all the programming languages and their pros and cons. STEM Fuse stood out because, for teachers, it takes away a lot of the guessing, lesson plan creation, and curriculum design. It was through STEM Fuse that we started using the free version of Construct 3 programming environment. As the early middle school students start creating block-based games they can also see their game in Javascript text-based code. Students can mix-and-match components of block based and text programing in the same project, even to the level of blending elements of each within a program segment. As they progress through middle school, they slowly transition to using less block-based and more text-based programming. This scaffolds the learning, giving the kids the real-world application and a basic fundamental understanding of computer science by the time they reach high school.

Gaining the confidence of teachers

Another big step was to ensure that teachers with no prior computer scince experience would become more comfortable getting involved. Because our chosen game development software comes with its own GAME:IT curriculum, teachers and students are able to dive in and start creating their own games using various.

As one of our teachers, Sydnie Grizzaffi from Atascocita Middle School, said: “I hadn’t done programming since I graduated in 2005, so when I started teaching, I was worried as I’d really be learning it at the same time as the kids. However, we all worked on it together and learned a lot more. Even teachers who are completely new to programming pick it up within a couple of weeks.

“Every semester we have an increasing number of students elect to take one of our CTE courses and more stay on to expand their learning further.”

By providing a wider variety of classes, having confident teachers, and having an effective curriculum with development software that grows with our students, we now have more than 70 percent of students electing to study CTE.

The world is full of unfulfilled jobs waiting for qualified students. Technology and programming are already embedded in every part of our lives. It’s past time we all work hard to let more students experience the excitement of CTE.

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