Midlands Voices: The Computer Science and Technology Act’s future depends on collaboration | Columnists

Midlands Voices: The Computer Science and Technology Act’s future depends on collaboration | Columnists

As hard as it might be to believe today, public education was once a radical idea.

Education reformer Horace Mann’s vision in the mid-1800’s for publicly supported education was grounded in the idea — a brave one for the time — that a well-educated population is the bedrock for a well-functioning democracy and society.

Just think how drastically different our world would be today if Mann and public education advocates around the country were not successful in this mission to teach young people basic reading, writing, and math skills. Now, imagine a world without cybersecurity professionals, software engineers, information technology workers, and computer programmers. The loss of productivity, innovation, and online safety we would experience would be enough to slow any economy to a screeching halt.

Just as Mann knew that mass-education was an ambitious and necessary project, Nebraska lawmakers and business leaders understand how vital computer science and technology education is to the future of Nebraska’s workforce.

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Recently, the Nebraska Tech Collaborative’s founding chair Mike Cassling said Nebraska faces a shortage of 4,000 workers in Nebraska’s technology sector that is expected to rise to 10,000 within four years — a shortage he deemed a crisis. Looking beyond workforce development, it will be increasingly difficult for anyone to function in our society if they are not technology literate. If this emerging crisis is not addressed, it will devastate communities and economies across the state — both urban and rural.

As dire as this situation is, there is reason to be hopeful about Nebraska’s tech future with the signing of LB 1112, or the Computer Science and Technology Act.

This legislation sent a clear and strong message that it is serious about preparing tech-trained workers to meet our state’s evolving workforce and technology literacy needs. Those in our state who are passionate about science, technology, engineering, and math — or “STEM” — education recognize this as a pivotal moment. Put simply, early and frequent engagement with STEM in the classroom will inspire young people across our state — especially those in historically underserved communities — to pursue a STEM-related career and transform their communities.

However, if we want to make this legislation as effective as I believe it can be, there are questions that must be answered and challenges to be addressed. How is the state preparing teachers to teach computer science and technology? How will schools decide which equipment, technology, and software to invest in? How will educators keep up with rapidly evolving technology trends?

Successful statewide implementation of this bill benefit from partnerships with higher education — an organization with knowledge and resources to teach the teachers, share best practices, and build networks of people that can foster collaboration and innovation. We at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s College of Information Science & Technology have made it a point to be that trusted partner in Omaha and around the state.

In this effort, three areas have emerged that we believe higher education institutions in Nebraska can also implement in order to advance the ambitious and worthwhile mission set out by LB 1112:

Re-skilling and up-skilling educators: Instead of strictly developing STEM-specific educators from the ground up, we work with teachers to incorporate computer science and technology education into their existing skill set. We achieve this through a dedicated master’s program and certificates that prepare teachers in a wide array of specializations — both on-campus and online – to teach computer science and technology. We have also developed a licensing program that allows individuals who work in tech to pursue careers as tech educators. Each of these approaches have drastically cut down on the amount of time it takes to get tech educators into classrooms, which is essential as the bill’s 2024-2025 school year implementation deadline nears.

Open-source teaching materials: The cost of teaching and learning materials for any subject can be a financial hurdle for many districts across the state. Our faculty and staff in IS&T have worked with partners statewide to develop public or “open-source” materials, freeing schools from the time and monetary costs of developing new technology and computer science curriculum.

Technology lending library: Schools shouldn’t have to invest in materials if they haven’t had a chance to test them first, which is why we have developed the P-12 Learning Library. It allows teachers to check out, use, and demonstrate in the classroom before committing fully. We have supported homeschools, after school programs, K-12 classrooms, and much more in recent years. Widespread adoption of lending libraries can help bridge teaching gaps in classrooms and build strong bonds within communities.

These highly collaborative and cost-effective methods have enabled educators to give their students the continuous exposure to computer science and technology education that will influence them to pursue careers in each of the fields.

The next two years will be crucial as schools prepare to meet the requirements set out by this legislation, especially for younger age groups. If we cannot spark passion for computer science and technology in students by seventh or eighth grade when they begin thinking about careers, we may miss an opportunity to make a generational impact.

This ambitious project sets a clear expectation and concrete goals that we can all rally behind. Our secret to success will be collaborating with new partners and strengthening bonds with existing partners in our Omaha community and across the state. If those who are passionate about computer science and technology education and STEM workforce development contribute their time and talents to supporting this cause, we can’t help but be successful in becoming a leader in this area.

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Martha Garcia-Murillo, Ph.D., is the dean of the College of Information Science & Technology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.