C Spire and Microsoft Philanthropies’ TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) program are teaming up on efforts aimed at improving and accelerating teacher skills, professional development and high school classroom instruction in computer science in Mississippi.
A letter of intent signed by C Spire and TEALS officials this week is expected to pave the way for funding a dedicated TEALS program manager for the state as well as the launch of a pilot program later this year involving five schools and expansion efforts in 2019 aimed at recruiting new schools and volunteers for the program.
C Spire hopes to quickly expand the program statewide through a grassroots fundraising program involving the sale of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) wrist bands by students, teachers, volunteers, community activists, supporters and education advocates in elementary and high schools across the state.
“With the shortage of qualified information technology professionals growing every day, we need to move decisively and quickly to equip teachers and inspire students to pursue computer science education and career paths that will help us meet the needs of our new digital economy,” said C Spire CIO Carla Lewis.
“Computer science concepts and programming skills are relevant in every academic discipline from math and science to music and the arts,” Lewis said. “Computational and critical thinking skills used in CS make students more effective in whatever career they choose.”
Teacher training is a critical piece of the computer science education puzzle and one that C Spire hopes to address by combining forces with TEALS and the Mississippi Department of Education’s (MDE) Computer Science for Mississippi (CS4MS) pilot program run by Mississippi State University’s Research and Curriculum Unit (RCU).
MDE is working with staff from MSU’s RCU to coordinate work on the initiative with about 35 percent (52) of the state’s 148 school districts participating in the pilot computer science program. About 400 teachers have been trained and over 15,000 students have been reached thus far in the program, now entering its third year.
“We need to reach students at a young age and help them understand the benefits of computer science education and the opportunities for a varied career path in the information technology industry,” said Shelly Hollis, project manager for RCU, who is leading coordination efforts with the public and private sectors.
Workers with a background in computer science are in high demand and short supply in Mississippi. Employers currently have over 1,200 unfilled job openings due to the serious shortage of trained, qualified IT workers, Lewis said. The average salary for qualified IT workers is nearly $69,000 a year, almost double the statewide average.
Nationwide, new research estimates the current shortage of 607,708 IT workers will balloon to over 1 million software developers in the U.S. by 2020. “The inventor of the next big thing, the latest app or cutting-edge software may be sitting in a classroom waiting to be inspired and encouraged to become a leader in the digital economy,” Lewis said.
Besides the partnership with TEALS, C Spire is doing its part to encourage high school students to pursue a degree and career in information technology and computer science. The company has hosted two computer coding challenges in 2017 for high school students across the state, reaching 43 high schools and over 200 students and has scheduled its first coding challenge in 2018 for next month.
The day-long C3 program teaches students to use critical thinking and problem solving skills to solve a fresh computer coding challenge during the competition. Teams compete for college scholarships and other tech-related prizes. C Spire assigns employees with IT backgrounds and experience to help each team navigate the challenge.
Lewis said the company-sponsored coding challenges and C Spire Foundation support for other public initiatives and private non-profit programs like the Base Camp Coding Academy and Pepper robot tours in schools are designed to help C Spire deliver on its promise to help create and retain a 21st century technology workforce in its region.
The education efforts, the public-private initiatives and the coding challenges can serve as an important first step to increase interest in computer science, according to Lewis. In 2016, only 16 students in the state took the AP computer science exam and only three schools statewide offered the AP computer science course in 2015-16, according to Code.org, a computer science education advocacy group. Last year, 105 Mississippi high school students successfully completed the AP computer science exam, a 650 percent increase.
Workforce development is a key part of the broader C Spire Tech Movement initiative designed to leverage the company’s technology leadership and investments to help transform Mississippi. Expanding tech innovation and education in the areas of robotics, artificial intelligence, internet of things, augmented and virtual reality, machine learning and telehealth are also top priorities for the company, Lewis said.
Other elements of the program include massive deployment of broadband internet for homes and businesses, tech innovation like C Spire’s smart cities partnership with the city of Ridgeland and other leadership initiatives designed to drive innovation and development of a 21st century technology workforce.
“We live in a software-defined world where code and the internet directly impacts every aspect of our lives,” Lewis said. “Computer science drives innovation and creates jobs in our economy, but we need to do more to encourage schools to offer courses, equip teachers and enable young people to pursue IT careers and computer science degrees.”