In recent years high schools across the country have been adding computer science courses, and there is a movement to make them ubiquitous. A new study of an unusually rich dataset in Maryland found that such efforts can have a significant impact when it comes to getting more students to go on to careers in coding, and in bringing more diversity to the field.
The study, published as a working paper this month, found that taking a high-quality computer science course in high school increased the chance that the student goes on to major in computer science in college by 10 percentage points, and increased the chance that the student would finish a CS degree program by 5 percentage points.
“It’s not surprising in some ways,” says the lead researcher on the study, Jing Liu. “But we need the numbers so we can show it concretely.”
Liu, who is an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Maryland at College Park, surmises that taking a class in computer science helps some students overcome popular misconceptions about coding.
“It’s like math anxiety — they think they can’t do it,” the professor says of some students. And he knows that feeling firsthand. “I took my first CS course in grad school, and before that I totally thought I was not a CS person,” he says. “Just exposing people to the actual curriculum can overcome fears.”
The study found that taking a computer science course had the greatest impact for female students, Black students and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Liu sees that as evidence that increasing CS offerings in high school is helping to address well-known disparities in the tech world. “We need more women and we need more students of color in coding,” he says. “We are far from achieving equity in this space.”
An estimated 57 percent of U.S. high schools offer an introductory computer science course, according to an analysis last year by the nonprofit Code.org. Maryland recently made it a statewide requirement that all high schools offer at least one high-quality computer science course, though much of the data analyzed in the study covers a period before that law went into effect.
While offering courses is a key first step, says Cameron Lee Conrad, a University of Maryland doctoral student who also worked on the study, the research points to the importance of encouraging a broader mix of students to actually take the CS courses. “Take-up rates are higher among students who have high math test scores, students who are male, white students — all the students you’d expect it to be,” he says. That trend has been identified nationwide as well. So schools need to do more work to increase broad participation in the courses they’ve started offering, he adds. “Strengthening preparedness is critical,” he argues, noting that strengthening fundamental math education in K-12 schools will help more students be ready for computer science courses.
The researchers say there’s another challenge as more schools around the country start to offer CS courses: finding qualified teachers.
“Very few teachers are qualified to teach CS,” says Liu, noting that many schools have tapped math teachers to start up their computer science offerings, but often more training is needed. “How do we get them motivated and compensated?”
The researchers worked with the Maryland Center for Computing Education to do the study, working with a few state datasets that have been linked, including information from schools, colleges and workforce data. They say their study is the first one to offer “causal evidence” that taking a course in high school leads to students going on to further study and work in computer science.