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When he was an elementary school math teacher, Shane Asselstine was on the verge of quitting.
His students often slouched in their chairs, their heads on their hands. Bound to a textbook-based curriculum, Asselstine sensed the frustration and low energy in the room.
That’s when the Toronto native, who worked as a network engineer in Michigan before moving to Hawaii to pursue teaching, approached his principal at Momilani Elementary with a bold proposal: what if he could incorporate Minecraft, a video game that allows users to design and create interfaces in a digital medium, into his math lessons?
That was nearly 10 years ago. Today, students in Asselstine’s “Tech Lab” — which evolved from that class and includes principles of computer science — are anything but disengaged as they learn about probability, ratios, percentages and fractions. They also learn coding, game design and cybersecurity.
The class covers math, science and language arts, incorporating tools that could be applied in fields like architecture, engineering or creative media.
The elementary school adjacent to Pearl City High School in Aiea is at the forefront of integrating computer science learning into the K-6 curriculum to foster creative thinking and problem solving, skills students will need to thrive in a modern-day workforce, say school leaders.
“There isn’t an industry out there that isn’t impacted by computer science right now,” Asselstine said.
At Momilani, where fundraising and donations are a critical component, every student, down to the kindergarteners, is assigned a Chromebook computer. Equipment is replaced every five years to keep up with rapidly developing technology. And “Tech Lab” is required for grades three through six.
“If you want to teach persistence, and grit, just watch kids when they do coding. They won’t stop.” — Ian Kitajima, Oceanit
In one respect, Momilani is trying to prepare for the demand facing Hawaii and the rest of the country as the economy increasingly relies on open computing jobs, technology and innovation.
In a small classroom plastered with quotes from the likes of Sheryl Sandberg and Barack Obama that champion computer science education, Momilani fourth-graders were seated at group tables one recent morning. Using their individual MacBooks, their task was to evaluate the functionality of a simple video game designed by Asselstine’s previous classes called “Zombie Maze.”
Did the directions make sense? Was the code clearly written? Was the game engaging? If not, how could it be improved? they were asked.
“You get a lot of people who say kids need to learn Java or C++, but what they really need to understand is foundational thinking that really starts in elementary school,” Asselstine said.
There is no standardized K-12 computer science curriculum in Hawaii. It is one of 35 states that do not count computer science credits toward math or science high school graduation requirements. There is no certification pathway for computer science teachers, according to the nonprofit Code.org, and there is a shortage of trained professionals who can teach the subject.
“There are few computer science graduates for one thing and secondly, the pay scale for teachers just doesn’t work,” said University of Hawaii Maui College professor Debasis Bhattacharya. “(The profession) is completely unattractive for computer science majors.”
To address the unmet need, Bhattacharya, a former software industry professional, is coordinating a three-year effort to train more public high school teachers to teach computer science using a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation awarded in August.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported an inaccurate number of schools that offer AP Computer Science classes.
Currently, few public high schools in Hawaii offer advanced computer science, College Board data indicates. Only four out of the several dozen high schools — Maui High School, Moanalua High, James Campbell High and Kalani High — teach AP Computer Science A, which covers coding and programming.
Ten schools across the state, including Honoka’a High and Intermediate, Campbell High, Kapaa High, Kapolei High, Konawaena High, Kealakehe High, King Kekaulike High, Castle High, Mililani High and Waialua High, offer AP Computer Science Principles. That course, which covers more of the theory behind data, programming and cybersecurity, was rolled out last year by The College Board, the national standardized test administrator.
“Computer Science Principles was created as an AP class to attract new teachers and students who are just checking out computer science, who may or may not necessarily major in it,” said Bhattacharya. “It was an effort to make computer science a lot less intimidating and more attractive to a large pool of students.”
The U.S. in general lags behind other developed nations when it comes to computer science learning in secondary schools. South Korea will require software education starting in 2018. Finland has integrated programming into core subject areas across the curriculum.
“Companies that require technical expertise will benefit if there is more computer science taught in the public high schools.” — Debasis Bhattacharya, UH Maui College
Some states have made efforts to stay competitive. New York City Public Schools will require that its 1.1 million public school students learn computer science by 2025. It plans to train 5,000 teachers in this area over the next decade.
Chicago Public Schools — the country’s third-largest school district — will make computer science a graduation requirement beginning with the class of 2020.
In Hawaii, proposed legislation last session to set computer science standards for the K-6 curriculum didn’t get very far. Instead, a Hawaii Senate resolution emphasized the need for such standards and dedicated funding for computer science training and positions.
Gov. David Ige cites the state’s low unemployment — driven largely by tourism, hospitality and service jobs — and has pledged to create at least 80,000 new high-tech and higher wage jobs by 2030.
Proponents of computer science learning point to the skills required of today’s workforce.
“I’m not saying there is going to be a Silicon Valley in Honolulu, but I think companies that require technical expertise will benefit if there is more computer science taught in the public high schools,” Bhattacharya said.
The average salary for a computing job in Hawaii is $78,414, compared with an overall average salary in the state of $47,740, according to statistics from the Hawaii Legislature.
Yet no program in Hawaii universities graduated a teacher prepared to teach computer science last year, according to Code.org, which promotes computer science learning in schools nationwide.
Without a computer science framework in place from a young age, such computing jobs could be out of reach for Hawaii’s kids.
If the need for computer science education is there, why hasn’t Hawaii been more active in standardizing the curriculum or experimenting with new forms of teaching?
“It seems like it comes down to fear,” Asselstine said. “A fear of trying something new and fear of stepping away from what you’re used to doing.”
The assignment in Asselstine’s Tech Lab class to review student-designed video games using Code.org’s Play Lab illustrated a sample lesson.
Seated in front of their MacBooks, their faces scrunched in concentration, the fourth-graders were encouraged to critique and write their evaluations on survey forms that were later compiled and graphically presented on a projector screen.
The object of the game was to keep zombies away from the astronaut player. Among their criticisms: The fireballs came out of nowhere, there was no points system and the code was not written clearly.
“I think the designer could make it a little more fun and add a points system,” typed 9-year-old Tyler Wee on a real-time feedback form.
His classmate, A.J. Matsuda, sized up how a game he plays at home — Mario Brothers on his Nintendo console — surpassed this student-designed one.
“It makes sense. You can jump. It has a reasonable explanation of why you died,” the 9-year-old said matter-of-factly.
A casual observer might think this was just kids playing video games, but that was hardly the case, said Asselstine, who heads the Computer Science Teachers Association Hawaii chapter.
He pointed out that the students also design their personalized web pages using Google Sites: they’re taught how to search for images, analyze the usage rights, select proper sizing and type up a description of themselves that does not compromise privacy.
“I think the designer could make it a little more fun and add a points system.” — Tyler Wee, 9, critiquing a student-designed video game
An offshoot is learning digital literacy: Fourth-grader Emma Kanohe said the class taught her how to type properly. She was using two index fingers before, but now her hands fly across the keyboard.
Asselstine points out that the computer science principles taught in class can be applied in many contexts. That might involve using data science to analyze farming on the island of Molokai or learning the design principle behind choosing a different color T-shirt online.
Representatives from the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation recently spoke to his class about the challenges of constructing the rail line. Students are working on designing their own transportation systems in Minecraft.
“It’s more a mindset or way of thinking than languages,” Asselstine said. “You can’t just give them the keys to the car, but not teach them how to drive.”
The Tech Lab has another benefit: empowering students who are struggling in core academic subjects by helping them learn how to think visually. The class includes youths with special needs and English language learners.
‘They find this voice, and that voice gives them this confidence where I now have kids who never would have done this, presenting at (the annual educational conference) Schools of the Future with me. So it’s really nice to see them come out of that shell,” Asselstine said.
The $1 million National Science Foundation grant will be used to train about 60 teachers in computer science across 30 public schools statewide over the next three years. It’s part of a broader mission: to expand science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known broadly as STEM, to under-represented student populations including girls and the economically disadvantaged.
In May, 202 high-schoolers in Hawaii took the AP Computer Science Principles exam while 88 took Computer Science A. Nationally, three times as many boys as girls took the AP Computer Science A exam while two and a half times as many boys took the AP Computer Science Principles exam, according to College Board data.
Blaise Hanagami, who teaches AP Computer Science Principles at Mililani High, said out of the 50 students who took the class last school year, only six or seven were girls.
Half the workforce at Oceanit, a global engineering and technology development company in Honolulu researching areas like artificial intelligence, consists of employees who were raised and educated on the mainland.
Ian Kitajima, the company’s director of corporate development, said from an employer standpoint, the recruitment pool is cultivated from a young age.
“We’d like to hire more local kids,” Kitajima said.
“We rely on highly educated people to do our work, he said. “What is produced in the education system has a direct impact on our business, maybe more so than other businesses.”
Kitajima points to coding instruction as an example of building a certain type of skill set.
“If you want to teach persistence, and grit, just watch kids when they do coding,” he said. “They won’t stop.”
“You try and you fail. That’s basically what happens for a 9-5 workday for computer scientists and assistant programmers.” — Christopher Nguyen, UH computer science major
One of Oceanit’s current interns is Christopher Nguyen, 21, a Farrington High School alum enrolled at the University of Hawaii Manoa as a computer science major. A typical day at work at Oceanit’s offices near Chinatown is all about trial and error, he said.
“You try and you fail. That’s basically what happens for a 9-5 workday for computer science and assistant programmers,” Nguyen said. “It’s all about being frustrated that your stuff doesn’t work and finding out that it does work, by finding out the bug, and getting excited, and that’s just in the span of eight hours.”
Momilani Elementary Principal Doreen Y. Higa has headed the school for almost 30 years. She sees firsthand the positive effects computer science integration has on her students. Nearly a third come from outside the school complex area through a geographic exemption. Roughly that same percentage of students, by the time they leave sixth grade, will go on to a private school, she said.
While she still has them, she hopes to steer them in new directions.
“It’s almost like, I’m the captain of the ship and we are going on journeys … to different places,” she said. “Hopefully the kind of education we provide here allows them to be open, allows them to experiment, allows them to venture, because they have beyond basic skills, and they’re not afraid to try things.”