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Pushing K-12 computer science education in Santa Fe

September 14, 2018

Santa Fe school board members have joked over the years that their board room is the place where resolutions come to die, as so few seem to get approval.

Last week, however, the five-member board unanimously passed a resolution directing district leaders to develop a K-12 computer science curriculum within five years — one that would have the support of local science and business groups.

Resolutions generally serve as decrees of the board’s intentions; they rarely carry enough weight to create or reshape programs or reallocate funding. But the computer science measure, introduced by board member Kate Noble, already appears to have some legs.

About half a dozen members of the local business community, including a representative from the growing Meow Wolf arts and entertainment collective, spoke in favor of Noble’s proposed “All Systems Go” initiative during the Sept. 4 school board meeting, saying Meow Wolf is in need of tech-savvy workers.

“Computer science is the future,” Noble said. “It’s where the jobs are.”

Based on recent national reports, she’s right. In 2016, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that about 50,000 students graduated in 2015 from colleges in the U.S. with bachelor’s degrees in computer science and information services. A year later, a report by Code.org said there were about 530,000 computing jobs available across the nation.

There were over 18,000 open jobs in the field in New Mexico in 2017, the report said, with salaries averaging more than $79,000. But just 40 percent of New Mexico’s schools offered a computer science curriculum that year, according to the Code.org report.

Advocates say the computer science industry involves more than just knowing the basics of how to operate a computer and conduct a Google search. Computer science delves into the way computers function and how they can be used to problem-solve and analyze data. Such skills can lead to a job in nearly any profession.

Brian Smith, who runs a computer science program at Santa Fe High School, said anyone acing computer science skills can land a job as a consultant in such fields as meteorology, medicine, retail, technology and the arts. They also can develop their own video games — which, of course, teenagers love, he said.

During a recent class, Smith monitored the forecast trajectory of Hurricane Florence along the East Coast, where he has family and friends. “All predictions made about that storm and the evacuations being conducted are based on a model program developed by computer science,” he said.

Sam Wilson, a ninth-grader in Smith’s class, said computers are becoming more and more a part of the world and allow students “to make whatever you want, including a career.”

While Santa Fe Public Schools does offer some computer science programs — including one at Santa Fe High, which is federally funded — the district does not have a comprehensive, districtwide program.

School Board President Steven Carrillo told Noble during the Sept. 4 meeting that while he supported her resolution, he wanted to know more about how much it would cost to launch such a program at all schools in the district.

The initiative might have at least one local source of partial funding at the ready.

Gwen Warniment, who oversees the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation’s K-12 science program — offered in 20 Santa Fe schools and in several other Northern New Mexico districts — spoke in favor of the resolution and said the foundation would be interested in developing and funding the initiative.

Noble’s resolution asks Superintendent Veronica García to initiate All Systems Go by building support among community organizations, developing after-school coding clubs and similar programs, creating mentorships and internships, and offering tutoring services for students.

The resolution also asks the district to create a three- to five-year plan to implement new K-12 computer science standards and create a plan to recruit teachers.

In a news release announcing the initiative, the superintendent said, “We are deeply grateful to board member Noble for her work. … Computer science is as important as learning math and English Language Arts in ensuring that students have 21st Century skills.”

Jennifer Case Nevarez, director of two Santa Fe-based nonprofits — the Community Learning Network and New Mexico TechWorks, which promotes technology education — also spoke in favor of the resolution.

“Very few of our kids are getting their hands on computer science training,” she said, “and they are not getting the kind of skills they need to function in our society. Parents, business people and kids — who are better at this to start with than we are — are all for this.

“It’s critical for our kids to succeed,” Case Nevarez added.

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