Tech educator looks to expand computer science programs, boost job skills

By Martin Kidston

In each of the last two academic years, not a single Montana student took the Advanced Placement exam for computer science, according to the College Board.

In 2014, just 105 students graduated from a Montana college or university with a computer science degree.

Such statistics have at least one industry expert wondering how Montana will compete in an age built on emerging technologies.

“The writing is pretty obvious,” said Devin Holmes, founder of Big Sky Code Academy. “We need to do a better job developing our K-12 and higher-education workforce to create a talent pipeline that’s big enough for people to build large, economic anchors in the state’s tech sector.”

Since its launch in April, the Missoula-based academy has held several coding boot camps for adults, and it recently launched Montana Code Girls – an after-school programming course designed to encourage young women to pursue a technology career.

The academy’s growth took another step forward this week when it was selected as a Code.org Professional Learning Partner. In layman’s terms, the partnership enables the academy to serve as a regional hub in the global computer science education movement, and to offer professional development to educators.

“This partnership adds a critical element to our initiatives to bring computer science education to all Montanans,” Holmes said. “By bringing the Code.org curriculum to teachers and schools statewide, we’ll help prepare Montana’s K-12 students for jobs of the future.”

Holmes said Code.org tracks the accounts of registered teachers working to bring computer science to the classroom. He said a check of the state’s registry showed that 500 Montana educators are trying to implement the curriculum on their own.

But that hasn’t yet translated to the number of students taking the AP computer science exam. Nor has it boosted the number of college students looking to pursue a degree in the subject. Both factors have placed the state at an economic disadvantage when competing for jobs and growth in emerging technologies, Holmes said.

“We have a gubernatorial race where candidates are talking and running on the platform of a new tech economy, and that being part of the future of Montana’s economy,” said Holmes. “If no high school students are taking the AP exam, and only 100 graduate with a computer science degree from college, how are we going to grow the tech economy and fill the jobs?”

Holmes believes solving the program will take a multi-phased approach, from training adults for today’s tech jobs to preparing students at a younger age for tomorrow’s occupations.

He also believes that partnering with Code.org will help build structure around growing efforts in the classroom and help expand computer science education.

“Over the next three academic years, we have a commitment to train 500 new K-12 educators across the state in this Code.org curriculum, so that our zero number of students taking the AP computer science exam moves up,” he said.

Last month, Holmes joined Gov. Steve Bullock in announcing that Montana Code Girls will also expand its reach this year by enrolling 150 new students across the state. He expects the program to grow into Montana Code Kids next summer.

“With this new partnership with Code.org, we’re working hard to bring a computer science curriculum to all K-12 school teachers in Montana,” he said. “You can impact interest by doing after-school programs like we do with Code Girls, and create that interest so some go on to study computer science in college.”

Contact Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com