Few Wyoming Students Are Learning Computer Science Skills

Apr 10, 2015

One way to tell how schools are doing with computer science is to look at how many students take the Advancement Placement exam for the subject. And, in the entire state of Wyoming, over the past four years, just one student took the AP computer science exam.

That one student was Casey Mueller—and the distinction is news to him.

“I was not aware of that, actually,” says Mueller. “I was kind of shocked in one sense. But, on the other hand, there was part of me that wasn’t surprised.”

Mueller took the exam three years ago as a sophomore at Sheridan High School. He left Wyoming shortly after that, graduated a year early and went to study computer science at the University of Montana. There, Mueller says, he met students who’d been on the computer science track for years—thanks to programs in their high schools.

“Rather than what happens in Wyoming—where it’s really not even an option anymore in high school,” says Mueller. “It’s just something that you would have to know about and pursue on your own.”

Wyoming’s poor showing looks even worse when you consider that 35 students took the exam here in 2001.

Ruben Gamboa teaches computer science at the University of Wyoming. He says the state’s reputation in his field was evident at a national conference last year.

“Wyoming was basically the laughingstock of the country,” Gamboa says. “Speakers would say things like, ‘we’re doing this really wrong in certain state here, but at least we’re not Wyoming’—and that gets old.”

Gamboa admits computer science education is not what it should be in the state. There are no computer science standards in Wyoming, no requirements to take computer science courses, and nothing outside of elective credit offered to those who do take courses.

Most schools don’t even offer the class as an elective. Gamboa says some schools do teach computer literacy skills, but that doesn’t cut it.

“How to use Microsoft Word, how to use PowerPoint, how to use Photoshop,” Gamboa says. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not computer science.”

Gamboa is working to change things. The College Board will offer a new AP exam in the country in 2017 called ‘Computer Science: Principles.’ It’ll be broader than the test Casey Mueller took—which focuses on the Java programming language.

Gamboa got a grant from the National Science Foundation to help Wyoming high schools teach this new class. They’ll be piloting it at Laramie High School next year and Gamboa hopes it will spread from there.

“There’s only half a million people in this state,” says Gamboa. “There’s no reason why we can’t reach out and actually make an impact. Our students should be doing just as well as those from New York and California and Texas.”

But even if computer science classes are made more appealing to students, most schools simply can’t find anyone to teach them. It’s difficult to get certified to teach computer science in Wyoming. For instance, UW does not offer a computer science endorsement for education majors, but the College of Education is the process of developing one.

Richard Jacoby at Cheyenne East High School is one of the only full-time computer science teachers in the state. To get certified, he had to pass lengthy tests meant for professional computer programmers—for each of the programming languages he taught.

“Mine was difficult to get,” says Jacoby. “I had to be as good as someone working out in the industry. I was able to do it because I had a lot of experience by then.”

Jacoby had spent years writing custom software before becoming a teacher, but he says most people with his skills could be chasing big money in the tech industry.

“I know my dad was very unhappy when I went into teaching,” Jacoby says. “He was like, ‘What the heck are you doing that for?’”

Jacoby’s computer science classes are rigorous—and small—just a few students. While most Wyoming schools can’t find someone like him, there are other bright spots.

Pinedale Middle School is one of four schools in the state teaching kids to code using an online learning platform called Globaloria.

“It is really cool. It’s really, really cool,” says Katelyn Hayward, as she shows off the 116 lines of code she wrote to build a computer game using Adobe Flash.

“In the beginning, I had no clue what Flash was,” says Hayward. “I had played Flash games, but not really known where they came from or how to make them. And this class basically told me how they work.”

Without these opportunities, it’s only the kids with exposure to computing outside of school that will pursue it. That’s resulted in a startling lack of diversity in the field. It’s evident all the way from high school computer science classrooms—to Silicon Valley cubicles. At UW, for example, just 16 percent of computer science students are women.

“A lot of times in my classes, I will be one of 4 or 5 girls,” says Brenna Doherty, who moved from Maryland to Wyoming to double major in computer science and petroleum engineering.”

Doherty took computer science classes in high school, but says she encourages those who might think they’re not cut out for the field to think again. 

“Once you get into these coding classes, you find that it’s just like any other class and they’re there to teach you,” says Doherty. “They’re not expecting you to know everything. Just give it a chance, because it will open up so many career possibilities for you.”

According to the research group The Conference Board, computing jobs in Wyoming are growing at more than four times the state average. But some wonder whether there will be people in Wyoming with the skills to fill them.

These reports are part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen!  -- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.