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Mississippi seeks more computer science teaching in schools

Greene County School Superintendent Charles Breland sees the need for more Mississippians trained in computer science.

A former technology coordinator in the rural southeast Mississippi district, he said Monday that his school system has struggled to hire a computer technician itself.

That’s one reason Breland is excited about a new state effort to increase computer science instruction in schools. A total of 34 districts will send 167 elementary school and 68 high school teachers for training this summer, in the first phase of a plan to increase learning about computers in all grades.

“We see the need for so many tech-related jobs out there that aren’t filled,” said Breland, whose district plans to send seven fifth-grade teachers and one high school teacher. “I look at it as future economic development for not only Greene County but the state of Mississippi.”

By most measures, Mississippi lags far behind in computer instruction. According to the College Board , only five Mississippi students took the Advanced Placement exam in computer science in 2015, compared with 293 in Arkansas, which has a similar population size.

“Computer science has never been a real push we’ve had,” Associate State Superintendent Jean Massey said.

But interest among school leaders is high, said Shelly Hollis, project manager at MSU’s Research and Curriculum Unit.

“We were hoping we’d get 12 districts to participate, and we got 38,” she said.

The state Department of Education and Mississippi State University announced last week that they are working together on the effort. The department also will train teachers to fold some computer instruction into fifth-grade classes, aiming for roughly an hour of instruction per week.

“It’s about getting kids in K-5 interested in computer science,” Massey said

At the high school level, the state is rolling out an entry-level Exploring Computer Scienceclass developed by the University of California, Los Angeles. Massey said that ninth-grade class could lead to Advanced Placement courses for juniors and higher-level college classes for seniors. It could also lead to career-technical education and industry certifications offered by community colleges.

This year’s push, including $200,000 the state will spend on training, is just the beginning. The idea is develop a sixth-grade unit next year, and then curricula for seventh and eighth grades, leading to a seamless K-12 curriculum by 2024.

Districts had to make a three-year commitment to use the curriculum, send teachers to training sessions, send back data for evaluation, and provide enough computers and adequate Internet bandwidth. But for now, teachers don’t have to have any particular qualifications.

Massey said she’ll judge the success of the effort according to how many students get computer jobs or study the subject in college. Both she and Hollis said they believe computer science instruction is here to stay.

“Every day, there’s something else that’s getting transferred to technology,” Hollis said. “We all have to take biology in school. We’re not all biologists, but it’s a basic part of the world we live in.”

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