Projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 3 out of 5 jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) will require computing skills by the year 2022. In the next decade we will have over one million unfilled job openings requiring computer science skills.

To understand why students aren’t streaming into these obvious opportunities, we must look at the K-12 experience of the American student. By the time they reach high school, students have tried on many different hats – artist, mathematician, scientist, writer, etc. – and have pictured themselves in those roles later in life. These early experiences powerfully affect students’ self-efficacy: shaping their beliefs about their own capabilities and interests and guiding their decisions about courses of study in high school. For far too many young people, lack of exposure to computer science during grades K-8 effectively blocks their view of what could be a creative, fulfilling pursuit. The elective nature of computer science in high school favors the status quo: students who self-select into CS generally match the disproportionately male and culturally homogeneous demographics of computer scientists currently in industry and academia.

As a nation, we are shortchanging our students. Although much attention has been given to what is happening at the high school level, the problem actually begins in the younger grades. Age-appropriate experiences with computing need to start in elementary school and continue throughout middle school if we are to truly increase the number and diversity of students entering computer science at the undergraduate level. Students who are offered their first computer science elective in high school will opt in or out based on stereotypes and feelings of self-efficacy. Studies show that these effects are diminished when all students are exposed to early, positive experiences as part of their regular school day. Addressing the equity gap in computer science first and foremost requires assuring equality of access. Until we ensure that every student, regardless of socioeconomic status, has a right to literacy in computer science, we will not begin to see true representation of the U.S. population in the technology workforce.

Under the direction of Gov. Raimondo, the Rhode Island Office of Innovation has launched CS4RI - a bold move toward bringing computing instruction to Rhode Island’s primary and secondary students. These schools are where the greatest discrepancy exists between what students need and what schools offer, yet it is also the most needed for national security and prosperity, career readiness, and most importantly, equity across our classrooms.

Project Lead The Way – a nonprofit organization that provides K-12 hands-on, project-based learning experiences – is proud to partner with the state of Rhode Island to answer this call through a K-12 Computer Science pathway and an in-depth teacher professional development model so that all classroom teachers can learn to integrate computational problem solving into their regular classroom instruction. We look forward to partnering with elementary, middle, and high schools to expand access to K-12 computer science education.

In today's world, the most effective solutions almost always involve technology because computation has revolutionized every aspect of our lives. Learning to think computationally prepares our students for their innovative, technology-rich, ever-changing world. Rhode Island recognizes this, and students will reap the rewards.

Shaileen Pokress serves as director of instruction – computer science for Project Lead The Way. Follow her on Twitter @ShayPokress. For more information about CS4RI, visit www.CS4RI.org.

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