Giving High Schoolers a Competitive Edge
North Idaho’s high-tech industry is swelling, with startup companies and Silicon Valley offshoots opening in the region in droves. It’s an exciting transformation for the state’s panhandle, which has traditionally relied on the natural resources industry and tourism to fuel its economy.
But for Idaho’s tech industry to thrive, it needs a skilled workforce.
This fall, the University of Idaho is leading an effort to engage those potential workers earlier than ever, with a new computer programming course for high school students statewide.
As an added benefit, those students will receive college credit for the course without forking over a penny in tuition.
CS 112: Computational Thinking and Problem Solving was designed in 2014 for UI computer science majors in the College of Engineering, while also providing basic programming knowledge to interested non-majors.
Computer science faculty decided the entry-level course was also a good fit for high school students, and in 2015, faculty members led a training at UI Coeur d’Alene on how to teach the dual-credit course.
Among the participants in the class was Nanette Brothers, a Sandpoint High School math teacher. After going through the UI Computer Science Department’s certification process, she enticed 11 Sandpoint students to enroll in the class.
This summer, UI expanded its CS 112 workshops, offering weeklong training sessions statewide.
Twenty-six educators participated in the training, taught by UI computer science Associate Professor Robert Heckendorn and Professor Terry Soule. The instructors received stipends from the Idaho STEM Action Center, along with professional development credit paid for by the Linda and Greg Gollberg Dual-Credit Scholarship Fund. Brothers will facilitate the course online through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy.
The goal is to better serve underrepresented populations, giving high school students in rural and urban pockets alike access to quality computer science education.
"This is a very big aim of the program," Soule said. "We try to include high school teachers from all parts of the state."
The online availability of the course also means that cash-strapped high schools won’t have to stretch resources to hire more teachers.
UI Dual-Credit Program
Dual credit became a state mandate in 1997 as a way to increase college go-on rates by making the transition to higher education less intimidating and more accessible.
“The dual-credit opportunities are ones where we can really show high school students that college work is something that they can do, and actually it can be pretty fun and exciting,” said Dean Kahler, vice provost for Strategic Enrollment Management at UI. “We’re trying to enhance the amount of dual-credit opportunities that are in high schools; that gives students the opportunity to get a taste of what higher education is all about. Dual credit really opens up their eyes to, ‘Hey, college is not such a scary thing after all.’
Idaho’s Department of Education Fast Forward program is progressive in its funding of dual credit, which is part of a larger initiative called Advanced Opportunities, said Charles Bucks associate vice president and executive officer of UI Coeur d’Alene. Currently, the program sets aside $4,125 for every public school student in grades seven to 12 interested in dual-credit courses, college entrance exams or online overload courses.
“When the state’s paying for dual-credit courses, maybe a student can get through 15 or 30 credits during those high school years,” Buck said. “And that reduces their cost of attending a university down the road.”
Plus, Idaho high school students who take dual-credit courses have higher college GPAs. According to the State Board of Education, the average cumulative GPA for dual-credit students is 2.99, compared to 2.63 for non-dual-credit students.
Dual-enrollment students also have higher college retention rates. In 2016, nearly 80 percent returned to college their second year, while the retention rate for non-dual-credit students was 63 percent, according to the board.
The Internet of Things
The opportunities provided by concurrent enrollment are immense, and the availability of the computer science course is a bonus.
"CS 112 is an important step in helping students enter Idaho’s high-tech industry," Soule said. "The programming skills taught are fundamental to a wide range of high-tech fields and the course is designed to encourage the kind of creativity that motivates entrepreneurship."
Last year, Idaho had 1,767 technology-related job openings, according to the 2017 CompTIA Cyberstates report, which gives an annual analysis of the U.S. tech industry and workforce. This created a sizable gap in supply and demand, as the state’s higher education institutions reported 436 computer science graduates during the 2016-17 academic year.
Stakeholders hope that the CS 112 course will pique student interest in the field and help the Idaho economy prosper.
It doesn’t hurt that Idaho’s average tech industry worker earns $83,400, a whopping 114 percent more than the average worker’s salary of $39,100, according to CompTIA.
“We hear from scores of companies that need talent in software engineering,” Buck said. “So we’re hoping that exposing high school students to a rigorous course like this will stimulate a percentage of them to major in computer science and engineering to create the workforce that companies need.”
According to Brothers, the dual-enrollment program is a good way to achieve this goal.
“There are so many available jobs out there, and we need to be filling them with people coming out of our universities,” Brothers said. “Otherwise, people don’t have jobs because they haven’t been appropriately trained.”
Article by Kate Keenan, College of Engineering