Board meeting sparks debate over computer science integration

Tejpal Virdi, News Editor

On Tuesday, May 22, the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) board met to discuss the addition of computer science (CS) education into schools as proposed by the Computer Science Pk-12 Curriculum Design Advisory Committee (CS CDAC). Specifically, the group’s recommendation to make CS a graduation requirement at the high school level sparked controversy.

Over the 2017-2018 school year, the CS CDAC met monthly to coordinate the implementation of CS education at each grade level, designate preliminary curriculum and organize a budget for the plan. Along with delineating the many academic benefits CS brings, the committee highlighted the current opportunity gap for underrepresented populations in the high schools. “There are 1,928 female students in our high schools,” sophomore Mallika Parulekar, a member of the committee, said at the May 22 board meeting. “Only 157 females are taking computer science, which is a mere 8 percent of the female population.” On the other hand, according to the committee, 362 males are taking CS, approximately 18 percent of the male population. She further highlighted the implications of this equity gap. “If we do not bring computer science to all of our students when they are poised to use the skills and mindset in their subsequent lives, we are contributing to the gulf between the haves and the have-nots,” she said.

The comments from the committee provoked many responses from the audience at the board meeting. Those against the proposed requirement mainly argued that the addition of another mandatory class will limit student choice, contribute to the inherent Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) bias from Silicon Valley and bring unenthusiastic students into classes. Junior Corinne Sears expressed such disapproval during the meeting. “High school is meant to be a time for students to discover new interests and become more well-rounded individuals,” she said. “By forcing even more STEM requirements on them, it continues to push this idea that STEM is the only viable career option, which already is a major problem in Silicon Valley.”

The board carefully noted each argument. Given the mixed response, it is likely that no action will be made anytime soon. Interim Superintendent Karen Hendricks supports this extended time frame, and believes that this work will continue through additional advisory committees. “I see this moving into next steps that will move into next year,” Hendricks said. Regarding the proposal’s content itself, board member Todd Collins particularly liked the idea of integrating CS education into already-existing core classes such as math or science, as his personal experience has shown him the benefits of cross-disciplinary education. “That’s what I have been taught the most: the value of integration across fields,” he said. “I would be very happy to see that explored.”  

As the issue makes its way from the proposal form to possible implementations, both sides of the argument have a lot of research and discussion to do, according to Chief Academic Officer Barbara Harris: a change in education policies can have severe impacts, especially with over 12,000 students in the district. This means the work of the CS CDAC is just the beginning of a longer process. “[The committee] created the launchpad,” Harris said. “The launchpad is solid. They don’t have the liftoff yet, and that might take some time.”