Computer Science: A Foreign Language Substitute?

“What do you think about computer science courses as credit for a foreign language?”

Del. Thomas A. “Tag” Greason (R-32) asked a simple question, but it prompted a heated debate among school leaders, state legislators and students Friday.

He first posed the question to the half dozen high school students who attended the Loudoun County School Board Legislative Breakfast, an annual event that brings school and state leaders together to talk about priorities for the coming 2016 General Assembly session.

Greason said his son, a junior at a Loudoun County high school, doesn’t have enough available class time to fulfill the courses required for an Advanced Studies Diploma and take other electives that he wants, such as computer science. As is, he has voluntarily taken a finance course over the summer.

“He doesn’t have a free minute and he just blew a whole summer with no free time either,” Greason said. “That’s something we should look at.”

To earn an Advanced Studies Diploma, which most Virginia teens pursue, students must successfully complete three years of one language or two years of two languages. Loudoun high schools offer six course options—French, German, Latin, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and American Sign Language—to fulfill that requirement.

Local schools also offer computer science courses, from an introduction-level class to a rigorous Advanced Placement class. But the computer courses’ enrollment is abysmal compared to that of the language courses because they are only offered as electives.

Chad Musa, a junior at Riverside High School, said the county should take the lead in giving students the freedom to get a good foundation in coding and programming before college.

“It won’t be long before the ability to code will be a test of literacy in many jobs,” he said in responding to Greason’s question. “I think most people will have to have that knowledge.”

School Board member Bill Fox (Leesburg) said the state would do well to give students an incentive to take computer science courses early on, especially in light of the growing gap between the number of jobs in the industry and the number of qualified employees. Encouraging students to begin computer science as early as middle school, as they do now with foreign language, could make a big impact on the shortage of IT-savvy workers in the long run.

“This is absolutely what we need to remain competitive,” he said.

At a recent Cyber Careers panel discussion hosted by officials from Virginia and the Department of Homeland Security, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said there are roughly 17,000 cybersecurity jobs available in Northern Virginia alone. And they pay an average salary of $80,000 a year, he noted.

John Wood, CEO of cybersecurity company Telos in Ashburn, was part of the Cyber Careers panel. He said he was asked what one thing he would change about school curriculum.

“We should be teaching our kids coding as early as elementary school,” he said.

Almost everything, from cars to thermostats, is now Internet-enabled, and a foundation in computer science helps students understand how their world operates, he explained. It also helps them apply math to their everyday lives. “The more they have practical applications for math and science, the more they’ll stick with it.”

Similar to the “space race” of the 1960s, the U.S. and China are in a competition to secure cyberspace, Wood said.

This year, the Chinese graduated more than two million “cyber warriors,” as compared to just 30,000 young people who took the computer science certification exam in the U.S.

“We have to get more kids interested in this field,” Wood said.

Some, though, are worried that nudging students toward computer science classes will automatically have a negative effect on traditional foreign language classes.

Newly elected School Board member Joy Maloney (Broad Run), who’s worked in the information technology field for 18 years, said it would be robbing Peter to pay Paul.

“Yes, we need to solve the problem that we need more computer science in our schools,” but not at the expense of foreign languages, she said. “We need to recognize foreign language as a priority, especially as our world becomes smaller and more diverse.”

Greason doesn’t consider giving students an option to opt for computer science over Spanish or German or French to be discouraging foreign languages. He said there are students interested in careers in the technology sector who, right now, do not have the opportunities to learn the basics of the field in high school.

“This is an offer to give a student a new pathway—that may be computer science for some students,” he said.

[Next week: School system leaders are looking at one middle school math teacher’s computer programming lessons as a possible model for other Loudoun schools.]

Contact Danielle Nadler at dnadler@loudounnow.com