Parents have been asking schools to teach younger North Dakota students more computer and cyber science including coding and even cybersecurity.
After all, the jobs are certainly there with more than 350,000 openings nationwide in cybersecurity, for example, and only a handful going into the field, according to statistics provided to the state.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler said a majority of parents in North Dakota "believe that (computer) coding and understanding of all of the apps and devices we are using are as important to students as reading, writing and mathematics."
"It's truly about preparing students not for just jobs, but also preparing them for life," Baesler said about a new state effort to improve computer science instruction in all of the state schools from elementary to high school in the ever-changing world of the Internet and living with apps.
Although computer science is offered in many high schools, Baesler said "parents of elementary-age students are telling us loud and clear that it's too late when they are freshmen. They need to have a basic understanding of computer science in our elementary schools."
She agreed it was a big step. "We are here to serve students, but also to serve the parents of our students," Baesler said.
Bills have been approved in the state Senate that would aid the Department of Public Instruction in delivering a blueprint for advancing the program, and those bills are now headed to the House.
Baesler said, in a way, the state would be the first in the nation in how it would deliver computer science instruction to all 101,000 students in the state's 244 districts.
The department has a three-prong approach to reach that goal, which sets it apart from other states. The plan is to create standards for each grade in computer science, train one teacher for every 160 students in school districts across the state and obtain state funding for training that will allow the teachers to gain credentials.
The bill that passed the Senate unanimously would allow the state to add a computer science credential to teachers' licenses so they can offer instruction in elementary and middle schools. Some certified computer science instructors currently teach in various districts at the high school level.
However, the department didn't want to leave local districts with the bill for training teachers, Baesler said. So the department has requested $6 million in one-time funding for training, while Gov. Doug Burgum's budget called for $3 million. The Senate, she said, didn't allocate the funding in its recommendation so she said the House will "hear our case and determine if they will include any dollars."
She said the funds are there as carryover money is available from the last two-year budget.
Baesler added that more money is not needed in future years because the amount would be enough to train all teachers necessary to cover students in all school buildings across the state.
"It is our hope that future teachers would receive the training in their teacher preparation programs at their colleges and universities," she said.
Under the proposed new training program, current teachers would have multiple pathways to gain credentials. Baesler said programs offered by Microsoft and Code.org train teachers how to help students learn coding, as well as other programs offered by the federal Homeland Security department and STEM.org.
Baesler said in developing the training program, she has also been working with Bismarck State College President Larry Skogen, who just recently signed an agreement to partner with Palo Alto Networks of San Jose, Calif., to begin a regional academy this fall at the college to train K-12 teachers, BSC students and the public in cybersecurity.
North Dakota's effort, in a move that sets it apart and is certainly a first in the nation, involves offering instruction to all students in cybersecurity and network security, along with other computer science knowledge, Baesler said. That means students would gain general knowledge about keeping technological networks safe.
Baesler also pointed out that it's not only parents and technology companies looking for improved computer science instruction, but other industries such as agriculture and hospitality. At a Senate bill hearing this winter, she said representatives were promoting the bills from the state soybean council and hospitality association.
In Fargo, Superintendent Rupak Gandhi said they are looking forward to the additional support from the state because they already started a program to teach coding as elementary library media specialists have been trained using the Code.org program.
He said by the end of next school year, coding will be taught to all students in kindergarten through eighth grade in Fargo.
As the K-12 program intensifies in Fargo and statewide, there will also be an opportunity for students to stay in North Dakota for an even more in-depth program as the Bismarck college, besides working on its new Palo Alto partnership, plans this fall to expand its cybersecurity program, according to Skogen.
He said the college has been training technicians in a two-year program in cybersecurity and networking for about three years and this fall will expand that effort by also offering a four-year bachelor's degree program in the field.
He said approximately 78 students are currently enrolled in the program, but he expects to have a national footprint in the coming years as applications are coming in from all over the nation. He said the effort started as an extension of its energy-related programs at the college.
Other North Dakota higher education facilities at Minot, Fargo and Grand Forks also offer course work in cybersecurity, however, those are of varying types.
He agreed with Baesler that the effort to offer students more instruction in a field that already has plentiful job opportunities and will have more in the future is the right move. In addition to the current 350,000 job openings in cybersecurity in the U.S, he has statistics that show there are more than 2 million job openings this year worldwide and that the shortage of workers in that field alone will reach 3.5 million by 2021, according to Cybersecurity Ventures.
*This article was originally printed in the The Forum.