How to Grow Computer Scientists? Start with Kindergartners

Kindergarten students sitting around a whiteboard

Computer scientists ensure that big and small systems—from smartphones to electric grids—work securely and as designed. But like many STEM-based professions, the demand for computer scientists far outweighs the supply.

In 2014, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts decided to try to reverse the state-wide shortage. Then-Gov. Deval Patrick assembled experts from academia, industry, and government to figure out how to build, fill, and sustain the pipeline of next-generation computer scientists. To do nothing meant leaving student potential untapped and falling behind the competitiveness curve.

MITRE's Carole Mahoney, department head of Agile & Adaptive Software Engineering, and Sandra Cole, portfolio manager for Air Force Aerial Networks & Combat Air Force Operations, volunteered their time and expertise to make computer science part of a kindergartener's experience and a foundational part of their education through high school. Their efforts led to the unanimous adoption of the 2016 Massachusetts Digital Literacy and Computer Science Framework(DLCS) under Gov. Charlie Baker.

MITRE is still contributing to this important conversation, thanks to Mahoney, Cole, and systems engineer Diane Hanf.

It Takes a Commonwealth

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education collaborated with the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network(MassCAN), an alliance of organizations supporting computer science in school, and Massachusetts Computer Using Educators, the state's professional organization for technology educators, to incorporate diverse viewpoints and expertise into the state-wide discussion.

Pete Sherlock, senior vice president and chief operating officer, nominated Mahoney as a member of the MassCAN Advisory Board.

Mahoney provided not only MITRE's perspective of and commitment to the importance of inspiring tomorrow's science and engineering leaders, but her own—as a computer scientist, a mentor, a hiring manager of early career employees and interns, a mom of twin daughters, and a longtime advocate of K-12 STEM education.

"To achieve diversity of thought, we need more women and under-represented populations to pursue computer science," Mahoney says. "We need all of today's students to be exposed more to STEM topics and be encouraged to be curious, ask questions, and take risks to explore the art of the possible."

Mahoney appeared in a video created for Massachusetts school superintendents. The goal of the WGBH Boston-produced video is to make superintendents champions of the computer science curriculum.

Cole was asked by Moise Solomon, her technical director at the time, if she was interested in representing MITRE on the standard development panel.

"It's so important to build a pipeline, plus all students need digital literacy and computer science knowledge, reasoning, and skills to survive in a digital world," Cole says. “The standard encompasses computing systems and computational thinking, but also digital literacy. It includes skills such as how to safely work online and use digital tools to research, create and communicate. It also addresses cyber bullying."

Computer Science Standard 2.0

Last spring, Cole applied to serve as a member of the DLCS Framework Implementation Panel. This panel's mission is to equip and encourage kindergarten through 12th grade teachers to make the new curriculum standard a reality.

"Now that the standard is in place, the focus is on what do instructors need to be prepared to teach? What are the required credentials and licensing? How do you develop teacher computer science competencies?" Cole says.

Cole reached out to Hanf, whom she knew would be an asset to the panel. Hanf applied and was accepted. She brings her perspective as a manager and as a former instructor in the military.

Hanf is particularly interested in enabling teacher evaluators to know what to look for—how do you know if a teacher is meeting or exceeding the standard? In essence, she says, "The panel is operationalizing the standard."

"This whole project has come together amazingly well," Hanf adds. "It's coherent, and it’s easy to see how each participant contributes. At the [in-person] meetings, everyone is very present. I get to learn how they do what they do. Teachers do a whole lot with very few resources."

The DLCS Implementation Panel will meet 10 times (six to eight hours each meeting) and is expected to deliver its recommendations by June 2018.

Mahoney, Cole, and Hanf each stressed the importance of this effort for posterity.

"There's so much being done now and on the horizon, from improved telemedicine to internet-enabled medical devices to the explosion of the Internet of Things," Hanf says.

The commonwealth (and the world) needs computer scientists to be at the ready.

—by Karina Wright