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Missouri Legislature's joint education committee hears about computer science's potential futures in state

Missouri Legislature's joint education committee hears about computer science's potential futures in state

February 19th, 2019 by Phillip Sitter in Missouri News

The executive director of the Missouri Legislature's Joint Committee on Education cautioned that committee Monday that an awareness of economic uncertainties and balance in education philosophies are needed in addition to expectations of job growth when it comes to the state's priority of computer science expansion.

The joint state Senate and House of Representatives education committee met Monday to welcome new members and to hear a presentation from Kevin Gwaltney — the committee's executive director — on Missouri's computer science landscape and how an expansion of computer science and the traditional liberal arts education model can complement one another.

Gov. Mike Parson signed into law last fall a bill sponsored by Rep. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, that the Legislature passed in special session. The bill will expand science, technology, engineering, math and computer science opportunities for K-12 students through new programs, academic standards and funding mechanisms.

"If we want to see long-term economic prosperity for our state, it's critical that we develop a well-trained workforce that is ready and willing to fill jobs in the fastest growing fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics," Fitzwater said in a news release from the governor's office in October. Fitzwater is not a member of the joint education committee.

"We've gone, in my opinion, too far" toward an emphasis in education on preparing students for four-year liberal arts college degrees, joint education committee Chairman Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, said Monday.

Much of Gwaltney's presentation was on the jobs left unfilled every year in Missouri because of a lack of supply of computer science-educated students that can meet market demand for those skills — thousands of open computing jobs, according to Code.org, a national computer science advocacy organization — and what the odds are that Missouri could develop stronger clusters of computer science industry.

The short answer of what Gwaltney said is that it's unlikely — though not impossible — for a computer science industry cluster like California's Silicon Valley or Atlanta, Georgia, to develop in a rural area of Missouri. He said it's also more likely than not that while graduates with computer science skills will be very employable for high-paying positions, "they may not be able to work in their (home) communities" in rural areas, though he added lots of computer science jobs could be done remotely.

"Where we're going to locate our jobs is impossible to predict," Rep. David Wood, R-Versailles, said, adding that's as true of looking 10 years into the future from today as it was trying to envision the present 10 years ago, given how fast and how much digital technology has changed and will probably continue to change.

Romine said developing a cluster of industry is not necessarily the education committee's goal, but it's to have the state's curriculum complement market forces.

Per House Bill 3, the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is to have ready K-12 computer science performance standards for the coming 2019-20 school year.

Romine said after the meeting that as the state works on its priorities to expand computer science — "critical to our future jobs" — parents can also be advocates within their own school districts to push for computer science opportunities to be offered.

However, Gwaltney cautioned during his presentation that "there's a price to pay" for an education system that only exists to produce workers, and care should be taken to balance expansion of STEM and computer science with liberal arts education's values including independent thinking, creativity, consideration of complicated moral questions, art, beauty and soft skills.

He said an over-emphasis on hard sciences or students' individual career and economic goals could cause students to become detached from the context of the society in which they live — its values, rules and individuals' civic duties.

Gwaltney also said "we haven't (yet) seen what benefits or unintended consequences" state's computer science policies have yielded in states' race to adopt them.