Highly skilled technical workers are in demand, and not just in Milwaukee. Employers are facing a growing shortage of employable, well-trained recruits to staff positions in information technology, in areas such as programming, network engineering, data/system security, software development and design, user experience, cloud computing, and so many more. Other countries see this worldwide shortage of skilled IT professionals and they’re stepping up to meet this growing demand. So where are the corresponding IT curriculums in the United States?
IT Curriculum: Not Priority
In short, it’s lacking. Students need to start learning critical IT skills even before entering high school. IT curriculums like TechnoKids offer project-based IT learning criteria that’s fun and interesting to kids, potentially engaging their interest in future IT careers from a very young age. In the Milwaukee area, Washington High School (MPS) has an integrated IT program running since the 1970’s - but this is just a start. Even looking out across the five county region, there are few public schools that purposefully integrate information technology/computer science into their standard curriculum.
A report issued by the Association of Computing Machinery suggests that while computer skills are slightly more likely to be taught, computer concepts are not. So while kids are learning to type up their school reports on a computer, there is little chance they’re even brushing the surface of the vast field that is IT. Most states consider computer sciences classes only as electives, and just nine states allow those classes to count towards math or science requirements for graduation. Notably, exactly zero states require IT classes to graduate.
Across the country, students interested in these technologies might only discover a fraction of the breadth and value of IT skills, perhaps on their own, maybe only by joining an after-school club. Let’s face it: many of today’s most destructive hackers likely started tinkering with computers before age 14. If those skills were enthusiastically embraced as not only useful, but required, how many might have been steered in a more socially constructive direction? Exposure to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) classes has shown to encourage students, especially young women, to choose career paths in STEM disciplines, IT included. According to a survey by Microsoft, “nearly four in five STEM college students said they decided to study STEM in high school or earlier (78 percent). One in five (21 percent) decided in middle school or earlier.”
Where To Start
A lot of this demand stems from the nature of information technology; it’s a constantly, continuously changing landscape. To be employable in this flux, young students must be (or continue to be) nurtured in basic skills, such as writing, reading, listening, communication, project management, and mathematics, especially arithmetic and algebra.
IT careers require a complex skill set and excellent critical thinking skills. For example, if reading and writing are challenging for a particular student, then technical documentation will also be a challenge. Therefore, the root issue should be addressed first. Or, another example: a student struggling in math and writing will likely struggle when learning to code, especially considering the importance of accurate syntax and code grammar.
When these basic skills are fully integrated with IT courses, only then will we be cultivating a competitive, employable future workforce. So before more complex computer theory and application topics are introduced, it’s important to use available tools to raise standard reading, writing, and math scores. Curriculum programs like TechnoKids may be a good place to start, especially seeing as each unit has a project-based structure, which emulates how real world IT project play out.
Integrating IT Curriculum That Works
Kids should not only be exposed to IT, but it’s important that it holds our students’ interest. Having fun through interactive and dynamic learning, while also being challenged, is important to a student’s success. Curriculum should be both diverse and engaging, with a focus on measurable outcomes to ensure an educated, employable future IT workforce.
To compete in the international IT employment marketplace, at minimum, every student should graduate high school with the following basic, entry-level IT skill set:
- Knowledge of the different operating platforms and the weaknesses and strengths of each, demonstrating ability to select systems for particular applications.
- Functional knowledge of computer hardware, the Application Stack and the Network Stack, demonstrating skills in computer building and troubleshooting.
- Functional understanding of network infrastructure and Local/Wide Area Network topology, demonstrating ability to build/troubleshoot a network.
- Functional understanding of Internet topology.
- Knowledge of different software languages, what each is used for, and their corresponding strengths and weaknesses.
- Functional knowledge of technical writing and documentation standards.
- Functional knowledge of different project management methods and tools.
Project-based curriculum is best, to simulate real world IT experiences. Comprehensive project categories (like the following examples) could be exciting and challenging, while allowing students to develop and refine their IT skills:
- Build your own server/network
- Hack into a classmates network (test security/defenses)
- Build web software applications (see codecademy.com)
- Create, secure, and populate a database with web services
- Build a mobile application
- Sell services or applications
- Build a PC from individual parts
- Design a solution to solve a problem
Students who excel could be enlisted in the school’s actual IT department, possibly entrusted with a power user log in with greater permissions. Students could also be encouraged to share their ideas, work, and experiences via social media (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc). Students could even volunteer at local computer refurbishing companies to extend the curriculum’s reach into the community, while they learn valuable skills. Such additional IT program components serve to provide real life experience, to establish trust, and to encourage ongoing engagement.
Incorporating IT curriculum into our schools is the only way the developing workforce in Milwaukee (and extending out to the entire United States) can hope to compete on an international level for these coveted IT positions. The potential benefits are numerous, and the issue is not going away. It’s time to ramp up our educational systems and to give our students the chance to explore this ever-expanding field that is not only growing, but is also so completely integrated into our everyday lives it’s impossible to ignore.