Jobs requiring computer skills are plentiful and lucrative, but so few teachers are trained in those skills that many Nebraska schools don’t even have basic computer programming classes.
An initiative at the University of Nebraska at Omaha to train more teachers in computer science won praise in September from the White House.
Computer science teachers in K-12 schools face a rigorous challenge because the technology changes so rapidly. Business and government nationwide have issued calls for more and better-trained teachers — and for more students. Economic prosperity here and nationwide requires people who know their way around computers and who can be innovative with technology.
UNO has pledged to add 80 credentialed K-12 computer science teachers over the next three years in Nebraska through courses that lead to state teaching endorsements in information technology. UNO also plans to contribute to that pool by offering a new master’s program in computer science education.
Brian Dorn, assistant professor of computer science at UNO, said the 80 would double the number of K-12 teachers in the state who currently have the endorsement and are using it to teach information technology classes.
“Our projection here is ambitious,” Dorn said.
A report using 2013-14 data indicated that only one in six Nebraska high schools provided a class in computer programming at that time.
Society in the 21st century will make heavy use of technology, and even students who don’t become computer scientists will need training in information technology, Dorn said. “And that’s why it’s important to have a skilled workforce of teachers helping us do that.”
The nonprofit called Code.org says more than 517,000 computing jobs are open across the nation. The White House in September cited similar numbers, adding that computer science “is largely missing from American K-12 education.” The White House applauded UNO and other schools and groups across the nation for pledging to train more computer science teachers, who will teach more children in the field.
The Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce said there are more than 2,000 online ads in the region for people with information technology expertise, such as computer systems and security analysts, programmers, software developers and network support specialists.
Even if each available job is posted in three different spots, that’s close to 700 openings, said Shannon McClure, director of research services for the Omaha chamber. Those jobs in the metro area command an average of $79,400 a year, close to twice the $44,600 average for all occupations, McClure said.
Sharon Genoways is among UNO’s part-time computer science students, taking evening classes to improve her grasp of information technology and her ability to teach it. She is pursuing a “supplemental endorsement” in information technology, which requires 15 credit hours at UNO.
During the day, Genoways is a Marian High School teacher who refuses to be intimidated by ever-changing technology and doesn’t insist on having all of the answers. She teaches a computer science course as well as courses in physics, biology and research at the all-girl school. One recent morning she talked about her hunger to learn about, and teach, computer science.
“I really, really love it,” she said. “Any new technology, I will be an early adopter. I will try it. I will fail. So many times, I will say, ‘Let’s figure this out together.’ ”
In strode her students, a dozen high school seniors with an interest in computers and programming. They divided into pairs. Posters on the wall of their classroom read: “Even Einstein asked questions” and “Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.”
The students practiced the precision involved in computer “coding,” or programming. “Computers are cool,” said Jenna Popp, who hopes to go into international business and computer science.
Dorn, one of Genoways’ professors, said her attitude is just right for teaching computer science to kids. One can’t be an expert in all things related to the field, he said.
“We just see failure as an opportunity to try again,” Dorn said. “When you’re working with a computer system, you’re not going to get it right the first time.”
The UNO College of Education and the College of Information Science and Technology created a new program three years ago to help teachers and prospective teachers learn about both the technology involved and about how to convey that information to students.
About 30 students — teachers and undergrads — are working toward their supplemental information technology endorsement at UNO, Dorn said. A master’s degree in computer science education awaits approval from the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education.
One evening last month, UNO education faculty member Michelle Friend worked with nine students, most of them junior high and high school teachers, who want to get their information technology endorsement. Some, such as Sara Waugh and Keith Kramer, already teach computer science and other courses in Omaha Public Schools.
Waugh said she expects the day will come when the school district requires those who teach computer science to have the endorsement. Both she and Kramer said they also just want to do the job better.
Waugh said she hopes to motivate her students at South High School to go into computer science. “For the most part, kids like my class because they can see the real-world connection,” she said.
Kramer, a teacher at Marrs Magnet Center, said more teachers should take the courses.
“There’s a lot of teachers that need this, because this is pretty much a brand-new program,” he said. “I have a tendency to just jump in feet first.”
Other Nebraska colleges and universities that have programs leading to the state’s supplemental information technology endorsement include the University of Nebraska at Kearney and Wayne State College. University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty members are thinking about proposing such a program. Bellevue University is in the planning stages of offering the classes.
Some faculty members in the NU system asked NU President Hank Bounds by email early this year if it was possible to implement a new set of university admissions requirements that include computer science. The email said that most students taking high school computer science classes are unable to use them for certain high school graduation needs or to meet NU admissions requirements.
The university said it doesn’t count high school computer science toward core course requirements, nor can students sub computer science for NU math or science requirements.
Bounds told the faculty members that his staff found no major university with an explicit computer science requirement for admission. The answer to the faculty members’ request is no for now, he said.
Sherri Harms, chairwoman of computer science and information technology at UNK, said if NU becomes more receptive to computer science in admissions, K-12 schools will have more reason to offer it.
It’s not just about getting children to use technology, she said. “It’s about being creators of technology.”
Dorn and others wrote a paper last year that said the students at only 17 percent of Nebraska’s high schools in 2013-14 had access to an initial course in computer programming.
The Nebraska Department of Education is updating its standards for information systems programs in K-12 schools, among other programs. The State Board of Education approved the standards last week.
Cory Epler, senior administrator for teaching and learning with the state education department, said the standards will increase the rigor of instruction and meet college and workforce expectations. But while standards reflect what students should know and be able to do, he said, curriculum on how those standards are met is determined by local officials and school boards.
Jacqui Garrison, a career field specialist with the state education department, said her agency wants to make sure teachers are prepared to teach the subject matter.
“We do see it across the state, where more and more teachers are asking for information about it — just asking for professional development in the area of computer science,” she said.
The demands on teachers are great. In many cases, there is little opportunity to focus on one area, college faculty members said.
“The resources available vary from district to district,” said Tim Garvin, department chairman of computer technology and information systems at Wayne State College. “Often times, they (teachers) wear many hats.”