Some may be surprised to hear that computer science isn’t required to be taught in schools in our state.

Share story

While Seattle is known as a fast-growing hot spot for the tech industry, some may be surprised to hear that computer science isn’t required to be taught in schools in our state.

According to Code.org, a local nonprofit working to change policy nationwide to support computer science education in schools, 93 percent of Washington parents want their child’s school to teach computer science while just 40 percent of schools here do. Learning computer science in school makes a big difference in communities like ours, with many open computing jobs. Students who learn computer science in high school are six times more likely to major in computer science in college – for girls that figure jumps to ten times more likely.

Preparing students through school for the computing jobs of the future is a nationwide problem, of course. Here in Washington, we’ve been addressing the issue from various angles for years.

Code.org, for example, has changed policy in 20 states to support computer science education in schools, and added computer science education to the curriculum in 120 of the largest school districts in the U.S. since they launched with a YouTube video in 2013.

Photo courtesy of Living Computers: Museum + Labs
Photo courtesy of Living Computers: Museum + Labs

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Other programs that are helping to advance computer science in the schools are TEALs (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools), and Technology Access Foundation (TAF). TEALS, supported by Microsoft Philanthropies, was started by a Microsoft employee nearly 10 years ago. The program pairs up professional computer scientists with high school teachers to expand the reach of computer science programs in schools in our area. Today, schools in 25 states have TEALS partnerships, including 71 schools in Washington. Meanwhile TAF started more than twenty years ago as a center dedicated to transforming STEM education for kids of color. The TAF Academy, a public school in Kent, focuses on teaching STEM subjects to a diverse student body.

Thanks in part to the work of Code.org and other advocates, there has been recent movement on a policy level to advance computer science education in schools. Washington state is one of only seven states to enact new computer science education standards in December of last year. Still, those changes won’t come right away – and they won’t solve everything.

Infrastructure and teachers in many schools aren’t prepared to take on this new challenge. Currently about one in 10 schools here have programs that meet the new standards – that means that a lot of kids are still being left out and a lot of exposure to computer science is still happening outside the classroom, at after-school coding or robotic clubs. Until computer science is fully and equitably instilled in school curriculums, there’s a serious access problem when it comes to computer science education.

“If a kid is interested in robotics, they probably won’t be able to go out and purchase a $300 robotics kit unless their family can afford that,” says Nina Arens, Education Coordinator for Living Computers: Museum + Labs. The same goes for computer camps or workshops, which aren’t usually cheap, she says. “Parents tend to shy away from making the investment in those types of experiences if they aren’t sure their kid will actually like it.”

The Living Computers: Museum + Labs is all about access to computer science. The museum started as a collection of vintage computers Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen had collected because he thought they shouldn’t be lost to history. Thanks in rigorous computer restoration program, it’s now become the largest collection of operational computers in the world. In November, the museum in the nondescript building in SoDo was renovated, expanding from the collection of vintage computers (which yes, you can actually use) to include a floor of rotating exhibits about new and future technology, and three state-of-the-art computer science learning labs. These labs play host to field trips and workshops for students – and teachers – that want to take advantage of modern infrastructure and expert knowledge, and all-ages events thrown in partnership with local collaborators in tech and education.

Living Computers: Museum + Labs is hoping to become a hub of sorts for the rich landscape of computer science education already here in Seattle. “Many wonderful local organizations have already expressed interest in working with us to make quality computer science education affordable and accessible to all,” says Arens.

Photo courtesy of Living Computers: Museum + Labs
Photo courtesy of Living Computers: Museum + Labs

Families that want to go straight to that hub and see what Living Computers: Museum + Labs is all about can visit themselves. From the computer collection upstairs to the interactive exhibits showing the future of computer science, like self-driving cars and mapping the ocean, kids and adults alike will learn a thing or two about computer science. And in many cases, they often learn together.

“In the old days, you were lucky to get your hands on machines like these. But now, everyone has something to share about their first computer … even grandparents,” says Arens. “It’s just a really unique place for families – instead of constantly disagreeing over technology, here is a place where you can come and connect over it.”

Arens hopes the Labs will help to build on these experiences, offering opportunities to engage with computer science that grow with students instead of alongside them.

Computer science is no longer a discipline that belongs to a narrow band of classroom endeavors and technical career paths. Computer science – and everything it drives, powers and informs – has become integrated into our everyday lives. Engaging students, teachers and families in new and exciting ways is key to successful futures for us all.

Living Computers: Museum + Labs provides hands-on experience with computer technology from the 1960s to the present. A new main gallery offers experiences with robotics, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, big data, the Internet of Things, videogame making and digital art.