DPI seeks $6 million to train teachers in computer science, cybersecurity

Bismarck High School student Jacob Livingston, one of five student interns in the school's Tech Daemons Help Desk program, salvages parts from a used laptop. The interns, under the guidance of Nicholas Holzer, the technology project lead for the school district, help the school and classmates with repairs and technical assistance each day. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune
Bismarck High School student Jacob Livingston, one of five student interns in the school's Tech Daemons Help Desk program, salvages parts from a used laptop. The interns, under the guidance of Nicholas Holzer, the technology project lead for the school district, help the school and classmates with repairs and technical assistance each day. Mike McCleary / Bismarck TribuneMike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK -- North Dakota is looking to make computer science and cybersecurity courses accessible to all students across the state.

A group of educators this month completed a final draft of K-12 computer science and cybersecurity standards, which, pending State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler's approval, will go into effect this fall.

These academic standards are not mandatory, as cybersecurity and computer science are not required courses of instruction. But Baesler said the overall goal of these standards is to ensure all students have an equal opportunity to learn computer science.

"Every aspect of our lives is being touched (by computer science), so we felt it was really important that North Dakota stay on top of that and make sure our students have the same sort of opportunities," Baesler said.

Once these standards are adopted, North Dakota will become the first state to incorporate cybersecurity into its K-12 standards, according to Baesler.

Many states have responded recently to the push for computer science education in K-12 schools by adopting computer science standards. Twenty-two states have such standards, according to a report last year from the Code.org Advocacy Coalition and the Computer Science Teachers Association.

But North Dakota will be unique in that cybersecurity ideas and concepts will be included at every grade level, Baesler said.

At the end of the 2017 legislative session, Baesler convened a group of educational stakeholders and the Greater North Dakota Chamber of Commerce to identify goals for the following session. Stakeholders agreed computer science "was a necessity in our state," she said.

The group also identified a "three-prong approach" to improving computer science education in North Dakota. Currently, less than a quarter of public high schools in the state teach computer science, according to the Code.org and CSTA report.

The first part of the approach was to write the standards, Baesler said. The second part was to get teachers credentialed to teach these topics.

The state Department of Public Instruction issues a number of credentials to teachers, including to school principals and library media specialists. But it does not have the authority to issue credentials in computer science and cybersecurity.

So, this session, lawmakers are pushing a bill to allow DPI to credential teachers in these areas. The bill — Senate Bill 2171 — cleared the Senate last month and is now being reviewed in the House.

Baesler said districts will be able to decide which teachers they'd like to get credentialed, or teachers can sign up themselves.

The standards these teachers are expected to follow include basic to somewhat complex computer science and cybersecurity concepts.

For instance, one of the standards state that, in first grade, students will be able to independently use passwords to access technology. By 12th grade, students are expected to "create prototypes that use algorithms to solve computational problems."

Amy Soma, an instructional resources and library coordinator for Fargo Public Schools, was on the committee that wrote the standards. Soma said the standards were intentionally made to be broad and do not include examples to reflect rapidly changing technologies.

"We very intentionally left out programming language ... so that the standards would remain relevant, even when the programming that the students are learning, change," Soma said.

Soma added that computer science, however, is not just about technology but logic, problem-solving and creativity — skills students will need long into the future.

Baesler said the "third prong" to improving computer science and cybersecurity education in the state comes down to money. DPI also is seeking $6 million from the Legislature to train teachers to teach computer science.

She said DPI's goal is to train 700 teachers for the computer and cybersecurity credential — one teacher for every 160 students. The average cost for training is $8,000 per teacher, which equates to about $6 million.

Baesler said, while districts will not be mandated to teach computer science, she believes more parents will request districts include these courses. She pointed to a 2016 Gallup poll, which found about 90 percent of parents want their children to study computer science.

"We wanted to make the resources available (at the state level)," she said.

If lawmakers choose to not fund the $6 million, Baesler said the credential would still be available, as well as the standards.

"I just think it would be a lot slower growth," she said. "If we as a state are hearing from parents saying this is important ... (for) our children to have this opportunity, then I think we should really provide the support to our school districts."