Results of a recent survey published by Amazon’s Future Engineer offshoot show several disconnects between the interests, experiences, and aspirations of U.S. students in regard to computer science. While many of the jobs that await today’s middle and high school students will likely be even more technology-focused than they are now, more specifics are required—beyond those illuminated here—to make sure that high-quality education and training is in place to leverage legitimate interest from young people and to properly connect them with the work they will ultimately undertake.
The survey was conducted electronically by Gallup in June 2021, with a total nationwide sample of 4,116 public and private school students. Just over 1,800 were high schoolers, the rest middle schoolers. Weighting adjustments were made to closer match the sample to national demographics of gender, grade, race/ethnicity, and school type per the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2019. No breakout of responses between public and private school students was included.
Interest in computer science was high among survey respondents, with 62 percent saying they would like to learn about the topic. That included 53 percent of female students and 72 percent of male students. Among Black students, however, females were slightly more likely to say they are interested in learning about computer science; and Black female students are more likely than White or Hispanic females to report interest (61, 51, and 52 percent, respectively). Overall, female students were significantly less likely than males to say they planned to study computer science in college and would someday like to have a job in a related field.
In terms of access, 70 percent of respondents reported that computer science courses were offered at their schools; however, just 49 percent had actually taken one. Low-income students living in rural areas were least likely to report course availability in their schools. In large cities, where computer science classes are presumably more common, only 67 percent of Black students said their schools offered them, versus 81 percent of Hispanic students and 88 percent of White students. Access to school-based courses also predicted interest in the topic: Among students who said computer science classes were offered, 68 percent said they were interested in learning about the topic versus 49 percent of those whose schools do not offer such courses. Same goes for sustaining interest: Among students who reported no access to computer science classes, interest in the topic falls from 63 percent at fifth grade to 23 percent at twelfth grade; where classes are available, reported interest still falls, but from 85 percent to 59 percent.
Finally, having adult role models was strongly linked to students’ computer science career plans. Just over half of students reported having a role model in the field, although no definition of the term was provided by surveyors nor did students identify their role models. Responses were lower for female students (49 percent) and Black students (45 percent). Students in urban areas were twice as likely to report having a computer science role model than were their rural peers, which the analysts connect to a similar gap in access to classes, which likely means that students are generally thinking of classroom teachers when referring to a “role model in the field.” More than 60 percent of students who reported taking a computer science class at school said they have role models in the field versus just 45 percent of those who reported not taking a class.
The report makes no recommendations other than to boost the number of computer science classes in schools and the number of adult role models for students. This is okay as far as it goes, but focusing on teachers as high-tech role models seems less than ideal, and not thinking beyond the classroom walls is troublingly status quo–centric. Surely any such boosts within schools would favor the same areas and kids the current set up favors, and the rural and low-income schools that are lacking in computer science would continue to lag behind without specific efforts to widen access to technology education for the traditionally-underserved. It also entirely ignores the many and various free DIY online options available to anyone with sufficient bandwidth and some rudimentary knowledge, as well as non-profit organizations whose missions are dedicated to growing a diverse pipeline of future coders and computer engineers.
Policymakers and employers like Amazon can definitely make use of the statistics in this report, but here’s hoping that they look well beyond our nineteenth century school structure to build their high-tech future.
SOURCE: “Developing Careers of the Future: A Study of Student Access to, and Interest in, Computer Science,” Gallup and Amazon (October 2021).