Computer Science Education expanding in Alabama

Updated: Feb. 8, 2018 at 5:50 PM CST
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students learn programming in Jill Westerlund's class at Hoover High
students learn programming in Jill Westerlund's class at Hoover High

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Every time you pick your phone and open an app, or put directions in your GPS, you are benefiting from computer science.

Technology touches almost every aspect of our lives now, and every career field, that's why some Alabama teachers are pushing to make computer science a part of every student's education.

"It's where all the opportunities are for jobs for the future. It enables them to create their future, create the products they use rather than just using the products," says Carol Yarbrough. She teaches computer science at the Alabama School of Fine Arts and was one of the first high school computer science teachers in the state.

"When I first started teaching here in 2007 there were two other schools in the state that taught computer science," says Yarbrough. "I was really shocked that so few students in our state got the chance to learn computer science."

Now about 130 of Alabama's more than 1,600 high schools offer computer science classes at some level, but only about a dozen offer the advanced courses. Teachers like Yarbrough are working to change that. She's part of Governor Kay Ivey's new Computer Science Education Advisory Council, which is working to get computer science classes in every Alabama high school.

"We have progressed very quickly in the last 10 years as a state. We are far above a lot of the other states. We have to get it in all of the schools and have that opportunity there. I would love for it to become a graduation requirement, but I think that's down the road. Just an exposure to computer science will help students no matter what field they go into," says Yarbrough.

She spent decades working in the corporate world as a computer programmer. Now, her classes are filled with students with all different interests and backgrounds. One of the star programmers right now, is Arrington Harper. She's an 11th grader at ASFA with a concentration in visual arts. She says everyone should be exposed to computer science.

"Even if you aren't interested in math and science, there are so many other areas that computer science touches. For example I go to the arts school. More and more artists are moving from traditional to digital medium. So I think even if you aren't looking to go into math science it's still a useful skill to have," says Harper.

Jill Westerlund help start the program at Hoover High.

"I am so passionate I choose to do it beyond what I am paid to do. I am a co-op teacher," says Westerlund. "I think that every job, any current students or even adult, is trying to do is going to be impacted by technology. Someone has to write the code to run the systems and the innovations that are coming out and a student is going to be more well-rounded if they have a background in how computing can solve problems and create opportunities," says Westerlund.

Her students know that the class will help them, no matter what career they choose.

"It's ever evolving right now and it's becoming more and more important in the job market. Every single company out there has computer science in some form in their company," says student  Warren Griggs. He's a senior in Westerlund's class and plans to major in computer science at The University of Alabama at Huntsville.

One of Westerlund's first computer science students, Chris Rocco, is now an Applications Programmer at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is helping organize a computer programming competition on Feb 17th for high school students, aimed at increasing exposure and excitement about computer science education. Students from both ASFA and Hoover have already signed up. Rocco says his classes in high school, shaped his career.

"It was really this course at Hoover High school that introduced me to the new concepts that I didn't know were out there or how to pursue them. It provided direction and exposure," says Rocco.  

Taking advanced computer science classes in high school opens doors to 130 different career fields, and 48 college majors according to the AP College Board. Students with degrees in computer science have some of the highest paid jobs of any industry.

"I think for many students, especially ones from an economically disadvantaged backgrounds that learning computer science is an incredible pathway for them to get into well paying jobs, to have jobs they enjoy," says Yarbrough.

Westerlund agrees saying, "I feel like that if we can get more schools offering these options to students as academic electives then we are going to be helping our kids move forward."

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