Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Minnesota high schools rank last for computer science course offerings

Students at a desk working on course work in their computers.
Students work on coding coursework.
Aaliyah Demry | MPR News 2023

Minnesota teachers who are interested in computer science are meeting online this coming weekend for the MNCodes Educator Summit.

Among the speakers is Andrea Wilson Vazquez, the state Department of Education’s computer science specialist. She was hired last year as part of efforts to build up computer science education in Minnesota.

The effort is needed, according to a report published last year by the Code.org Advocacy Coalition. Minnesota ranked last in the nation in terms of computer science courses available to high school students. Just 28 percent of state high schools offered computer science courses, compared to about 57 percent nationally.

Andrea Wilson Vazquez joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about the state’s plans to expand those offerings.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Minnesota teachers who are interested in computer science are meeting online this coming weekend for the MN Codes Educator Summit. Among the speakers is Andrea Wilson Vasquez, the State Department of Education's Computer Science Specialist. She was hired last year as part of the legislature's efforts to build up computer science education in Minnesota.

The effort is needed, according to a report published last year by the Code.org Advocacy Coalition. Minnesota ranked last in the nation in terms of the courses available to high school students. 28% of high schools offered computer science courses compared to about 57% across the country. Andrea Wilson Vasquez joins us now to talk about the state's plans to expand those offerings.

Welcome to the program.

ANDREA WILSON VASQUEZ: Hi, Cathy. Thanks so much for having me. I'm glad to be here.

CATHY WURZER: Thanks for taking the time. I am kind of surprised that Minnesota has so few course offerings compared to other states. What the heck is going on?

ANDREA WILSON VASQUEZ: I know it. In Minnesota, especially in education, we are really not used to being in last place in anything, and it certainly isn't something that bodes well. But we've embraced that spotlight and that notoriety to take a look at what's happening, and to think about ways that we can kind of leverage that energy to propel us forward.

It didn't always-- it wasn't always the case that Minnesota was lagging behind in computer science. I'm not sure, if we have any listeners who grew up in the '80s and '90s and went to school in Minnesota, but I remember playing Oregon Trail in schools, which was kind of a big deal. Yeah, it's a pretty popular program.

I think kids today still have heard of it, but that was actually a program that was developed right here in Minnesota as a part of an initiative to create greater access to computing education.

So Minnesota was a leader at that time, and we're hoping to shift back that way. We're leveraging a little bit of neighborly competition to look at what some of our neighboring states are doing. Iowa, Wisconsin, the Dakotas all have greater access to computer science courses. So we're just we're hoping to kind of learn from them, and also, to use this spotlight to help bring people together. We've really seen a lot of interest from our industry colleagues who are, of course, concerned and interested in ways that we can prepare our students for careers that are tech-related, as well as nonprofit leaders who are doing this work outside of school and--

CATHY WURZER: Glad you brought up--

ANDREA WILSON VASQUEZ: --educators.

CATHY WURZER: Glad you brought up the private sector, and I'm wondering, as you look to other states as maybe examples of things that are working, is it possible to do some public-private partnerships in terms of getting more computer science classes in classrooms?

ANDREA WILSON VASQUEZ: Yeah. I mean, it's certainly something to explore. I know that there are some great programs out there that make use of some industry knowhow and expertise, and bring industry experts into classrooms to not only talk with students about some career opportunities, but to lend some real world application to some of the computing topics that they might be learning about, and ways that computer science really impacts us all around us. So certainly something to explore.

CATHY WURZER: I'm wondering about the stakes in all of this. What opportunities could young folks in the state be missing out on if they don't have computer science training during their early education?

ANDREA WILSON VASQUEZ: Yeah, that's a great question. And certainly something that as technology impacts more and more of our lives seems incredibly relevant. Something that we like to talk about when we are talking with educators about computer science is that computer science isn't just about coding. It's actually about developing important skills around creativity and collaboration and problem solving, critical thinking, as well as really knowing how computers work, and how the impacts of computer science really do affect us all.

We talk about that computer science is actually a part of most every industry around us from farming and robotics within farming to animation and arts to banking, education, et cetera. So absolutely, an impact as we think about any field that our students today may be interested in pursuing.

CATHY WURZER: You know, I'm sure if there are teachers listening to this, they're thinking no, no, no, don't-- because I'm going to ask you, should there be requirements at schools to get classes-- more classes? Maybe, should there be a statewide requirement, perhaps?

ANDREA WILSON VASQUEZ: Yeah. I know it's a tough thing. There are a lot of competing priorities in schools right now, and one approach that the Minnesota Department of Education has been taking since 2018 or so is to look at integration of computer science across different content areas. Really acknowledging that computer science and technology are important components of ways that language arts happens and can be shared, and ways that ethics and social studies happen. So that integration piece is a big part of it.

And we're also thinking about ways that existing classes may shift and include updates that integrate computer science. So thinking about existing classes that may have in the past taught things like how to use Microsoft Word or different computer applications, those kinds of classes may now be able to shift to include more information about how computers work, or how some of those programs are developed, and provide students with some opportunities to do some of the creating themselves.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Sounds interesting. Andrea, thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

ANDREA WILSON VASQUEZ: Appreciate the time. Thanks so much.

CATHY WURZER: Andrea Wilson Vasquez is the State Department of Education's Computer Science Specialist.

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