Advance STEM education in bipartisan innovation and competition legislation

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Intelligence officials are sounding the alarm about the elevated threat of cyberattacks. Industries from banking to energy to transportation are warned to go “shields up” to protect our critical infrastructure from disruption.

Building those “shields” starts in the classroom. To meet 21st century threats — and opportunities — it’s imperative we prepare students with a 21st century education. That means computer science.

As chair and vice chair of the National Governors Association, we urge passage of key elements of the Bipartisan Innovation and Competition Legislation under negotiation by House and Senate conferees. There is broad bipartisan support for priorities like increasing domestic production capacity for semiconductor research and development, strengthening intellectual property, and investing in regional technology hubs.

Governors also share common ground on STEM education. Thousands of vital cybersecurity jobs are going unfilled due to a national cyber skills shortfall. There are multiple provisions before the conference committee to invest in STEM education — including scholarship funding to strengthen the pipeline of cyber talent in universities and community colleges.

These investments in post-secondary education are a critical complement to Governors’ work to expand computer science education from kindergarten through high school.

Republican and Democratic governors alike understand that K-12 computer science education is critical to American competitiveness and security.

Computer science is mandatory in 44 countries. Yet it’s only offered in 51 percent of U.S. high schools. It’s time to recognize that computer science is as fundamental as drivers ed, which 32 states require to get a license.

States are taking action.

By making computer science a requirement for graduation, funding more classes and supporting teacher training opportunities, Arkansas has become a national leader in K-12 computer science education. Since 2015, the number of computer science students in Arkansas has jumped from 1,110 to over 13,000 — a 770 percent increase. Girls and African-American students are underrepresented in this promising field, so we’re working to change that. Our efforts have led to a 1300 percent increase in the number of girls and a 700 percent increase in the number of African-American students enrolled in computer science classes.

New Jersey launched a “Computer Science for All” initiative in 2018 — funding the expansion of computer science education for the first time in state history. Since then, we’ve developed rigorous computer science standards for all grades, established learning hubs to train teachers, created a computer science-specific endorsement that educators can add to their certifications, and dedicated a new “Office of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)” to spur and track progress. During the initiative’s first three years, the percentage of public high schools offering computer science classes grew from 58 percent to 68 percent.

This is essential training that will benefit U.S. cybersecurity capacity and student career prospects. More than 550,000 computing jobs are open right now nationwide — including in cybersecurity, AI and data science. Opportunities are only growing. By 2030, computer science and technology jobs will jump 13 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These are good-paying jobs. The average computer science major earns 40 percent more than the average college graduate. 

A good grounding in computer science sets students up for success, even those who don’t pursue it as a career. Studies show that elementary students who study computer science basics outperform their peers in reading and writing.

In addition to computer science education investments, states have made great strides in closing the digital divide that leaves behind too many young people — especially in lower-income and rural homes. In Arkansas, we coordinated with telecom providers to purchase 20,000 hotspot devices and unlimited data plans throughout every school district — so that a child’s internet access doesn’t come down to his or her zip code. In New Jersey, 231,000 of our nearly 1.4 million public school students lacked digital access at the beginning of the pandemic. Through grants bolstered by federal COVID relief funds, we worked with school districts to provide devices and internet access to each of those students.

During the Space Race, the U.S. responded to comparable economic and national security stakes with a full-court press that mobilized government, industry and schools. The surge in science and engineering studies spurred countless innovations that still drive our economy and shape our lives.

The same strategies we used to win the 20th century Space Race are essential to succeeding in the 21st century cyberspace race.

Let’s safeguard American competitiveness and security by passing the Bipartisan Innovation and Competition Legislation — including investments in STEM education.

Asa Hutchinson is chairman of the National Governors Association and Phil Murphy is vice chairman of the National Governors Association.

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