Can Expanded Computer Science Education In Rural Areas Prevent Brain Drain?

By  Carrie Jung
Published: Friday, April 14, 2017 - 7:07am
Updated: Friday, April 14, 2017 - 12:17pm

Students in computer science class at Shiprock High School are diving into concepts like basic HTML and CSS.
(Photo by Carrie Jung - KJZZ)

It’s the beginning of fourth period at Shiprock High School and teacher Abigail Cooksey is taking attendance for her daily computer science class.

"OK, Veronica, I’ve seen. Howie is here," she yelled as students filed into class. On the docket today are database subsets. The kids have been tasked with making sense of a giant data set from the Centers for Disease Control. 

It’s the first year this school, on the northeastern edge of the Navajo Nation, has offered this type of computer science class. In the past, kids in this class focused on things like how to to make a PowerPoint presentation and typing skills, but this year they're learning the basics of web languages like HTML and CSS.

MORE: Source Code And Beyond: Navajo Students In Shiprock Dive Into The World Of Coding

"Instead of thinking about how to use these apps, it’s more about thinking of the possibilities for new apps," said Cooksey. 

But for now they’re starting small. 

"We joke that we made '90s chic websites because they totally look like things that you saw on the internet in the '90s," Cooksey said. 

While everyone was pretty energetic in today's class, the response to the idea was mixed at the beginning of the school year. Some kids were pumped, while others were there just because their guidance counselor enrolled them.

But now that they’re up and running, computer science class is making a name for itself, going from the roughly 20 kids enrolled this year to more than 60 next year, which includes the formation of an Advanced Placement level class too.

"What I like about it is when you type out everything, all of your instructions and save and you find no errors on your page whatsoever, that’s really exciting," explained Shiprock High senior Alan Taliman. "Once you do that and you save it and it starts working from there, the magic all begins with that." 

An attitude that’s music to Jeff Sagor’s ears. He’s the assistant principal at Shiprock High and the man behind the revamped computer science classes thanks to his job here last year, which involved bringing in college and career readiness programs. "When it comes to our students and job opportunities, there aren’t a lot of economically sustainable jobs around here," said Sagor. "We have welding at our school as well as things like journalism and the school newspaper."

But he added, the computer science class is quickly becoming one of the most fulfilled career pathways, which is an exciting prospect to administrators at this rural school.

"The opportunities that coding provides for remote work allow students to have both an economically sustainable job and still be a part of this family and community that they are attached to, instead of having to choose between those two options," Sagor said.  

For Sagor, the goal of offering this type of computer science curriculum is to plant the seed for the students here. He said he hopes they’ll develop an interest early, maybe study it in college and get some entry level experience that could eventually allow them to come back to their community to work. 

"I think an increasing number of teams now do work remotely," said Dennis Hoffman, an economist with Arizona State University. "But the question now is do they begin remotely and my guess is there’s less evidence of that." 

But he said that doesn't mean it's impossible, especially after the students get a few years of experience outside of school. Hoffman added the idea getting more people interested in computer science careers, no matter where you live, is smart because the market is tight right now.

Back in Abigail Cooksey’s computer science class, the students are stowing away their laptops

"I think we definitely have students who are all of a sudden thinking, 'Oh, computers are a career,' which isn’t something that a lot of my students have thought of before," said Cooksey.

Up next she tells the kids as they head to lunch, is a chapter on robot programming, something both she and her students are looking forward to exploring.

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