In Celeste Endo’s class at Queen Ka‘ahumanu Elementary School, students perform the “wiggle dance” when she flashes a black card. When the card is red, they break into song — “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.”

Endo’s students are only in pre-kindergarten, but they are already familiarizing themselves with basic coding language: the “if / else” conditional statement. As they grow older, they will continue to work alongside Endo to strengthen their coding skills.

“When they’re accustomed to doing this and it’s just natural for them, I think that’s when they’re not going to be afraid to try something new,” said Endo, who teachers computer science to pre-kindergarteners through fifth graders.

Kindergarten Computer Science Class Queen Ka'ahumanu Elementary
Celeste Endo teaches computer science to kindergarteners at Queen Ka’ahumanu Elementary. Courtesy: Staci Saito-Retuta

Senate Bill 2142 aims to produce more teachers like Endo. The bill requires the University of Hawaii College of Education to create more pathways for teachers to teach computer science at the elementary and secondary level, while also providing $1 million in scholarships to coax educators to develop expertise in the subject area.

At the same time, the bill encourages students to learn computer science from an earlier age, requiring that the Department of Education expand one of its graduation requirements — which currently encompasses world language, fine arts and career and technical education — to also include computer science. On UH’s side, the bill would require the university to change its admissions policies to recognize students’ high school computer science credits.

But it is unlikely that these changes will take place anytime soon. Although the bill passed in both the House and Senate, Gov. David Ige included SB 2142 on his intent-to-veto list in late June. The governor has until Tuesday to sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

The legislation received bipartisan support in the Legislature, but officials raised concerns about the final version. UH spokesman Daniel Meisenzahl said the university asked the governor to veto the bill, concerned that it would establish admission requirements that would apply to all campuses — including community colleges, which currently have an open admissions policy.

The governor cited similar reasoning in his intent-to-veto message. He also recognized that the bill limited the constitutional powers granted to both the Board of Education and the Board of Regents in setting high school graduation requirements and managing the UH’s admissions policy, respectively.

‘The Sky’s The Limit’

But teachers see the bill as necessary for preparing Hawaii’s future workforce for the demands of a 21st century economy.

Sarah “Mili” Milianta-Laffin, a hands-on STEM and computer science teacher at Ilima Intermediate School, said computer science offers valuable lessons that benefit all of her seventh and eighth grade students. In addition to helping individuals develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, computer science coursework also challenges students to communicate effectively and work together, she said.

“SB 2142 would be a big boost for computer science equity and access, as it would make computer science count toward core graduation requirements.” — Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz

“We have to stop thinking about subjects in isolation, but in the future, everything has to be interdisciplinary, everything is connected,” said Milianta-Laffin, who is also the communications chair for the Hawaii Society for Technology in Education. “Computer science can serve language arts; computer science can serve regular science classes. When we look to that future, computer science is going to be involved in every topic possible.”

Daniel Smith, a lecturer at UH West Oahu, said that he wished that he had been exposed to computer science in high school as he began skipping his freshman English class to take more programming courses as an undergraduate. He said the importance of students’ familiarity with computer science has only grown in recent years, even if individuals are not pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering and math.

Recent legislation has recognized the importance of computer science in Hawaii’s educational system. Act 51, passed in 2018, mandated that all public high schools offer at least one computer science course by the 2021-22 school year. Act 158 expanded these computer science course requirements, mandating that elementary, middle and intermediate schools also offer computer science by the 2024-25 school year.

The state has fallen short of its goals, with only 87% of high schools offering computer science classes at the end of the 2021-22 school year. But course offerings have significantly grown since 2018, said Kelsey Amos, the chief operating officer and co-founder of Purple Maiʻa, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching Native Hawaiian students how to code.

SB 2142 could take Hawaii’s computer science efforts a step further, said David Miyashiro, founding executive director of HawaiiKidsCan. By allowing computer science to fulfill a graduation requirement, rather than just an elective credit, the state could get more students to prioritize programming, he added.

“SB 2142 would be a big boost for computer science equity and access, as it would make computer science count toward core graduation requirements,” Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who introduced the bill, said in a written statement. “Research shows that this kind of requirement change would help underrepresented minorities and female students.”

Computer Science Coding Computer Screen
SB 2142 aims to introduce students to computer science coursework at an earlier age. Megan Tagami/Civil Beat/2022

According to the DOE, almost 14% of Hawaii public school students were enrolled in computer science courses in the past school year, with the bulk of enrollment occurring in elementary and middle schools.

At the same time, SB 2142 could expand the number of Hawaii educators who are prepared to teach computer science courses, ensuring that current teachers like Milianta-Laffin are not the only ones of their kind on their respective campuses.

“Teachers, we’re used to being a collaborative group. Well, I’m also the only computer science teacher at my school,” Milianta-Laffin said. “For teaching to work, we have to be able to work with other creative teachers to get the best lessons out there for our kids.”

Nathan Murata, dean of the UH College of Education, supports the bill’s provisions providing $1 million in scholarships to educators interested in computer science. The College of Education is already working with UH’s information and computer science department to establish the computer science licensure program mandated by the bill, he added.

Amos said the bill could help remedy the fact that local children, particularly girls and students of color, have few opportunities to see people like themselves in the field.

“A lot of what we think about and care about in our organization is, ‘How do you make computer science feel approachable for kids that might not see a lot of role models in technology or in computer science?’” she said. “It really, really helps to have teachers who come from a diversity of backgrounds and who can be a woman who knows computer science, or a Native Hawaiian that codes.”

While students may initially learn computer science skills through storytelling and Minecraft games, their knowledge can later translate to lucrative careers. The state averaged 1,903 open jobs in computer science every month in 2021, and these jobs boasted an average salary of $83,548, according to code.org, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding computer science education to K-12 schools across the nation.

Miyashiro said that Hawaii is currently competing with states like Arkansas and Idaho, which have recently made significant investments in computer science education and are looking to pull major companies away from technology hubs, Miyashiro said. At the same time, Hawaii has the potential to attract employers from the Asia-Pacific region, opening a wealth of opportunities to local workers while helping to diversify the state’s economy, he added.

However, this can only be achieved if Hawaii offers the right opportunities to its students — which SB 2142 could help accomplish, Miyashiro said.

“The sky’s the limit in terms of what our kids are able to accomplish,” Miyashiro said. “I think we actually have clear advantages, and we just need to make sure that we’re supporting our kids and our education system so that we can achieve our potential.”

‘Especially Negative Effects’

However, not all educators favor the bill.

The admission requirement section of SB 2142 caused confusion and mixed interpretations as it required applicants in fall 2024 to “successfully complete a high school course in world language, fine arts, career and technical education, or computer science, up to a maximum of two credits.”

Meisenzahl said UH understood the bill as establishing a new admissions requirement for all campuses, including community colleges. By requiring students to take classes in those subjects, the legislation could potentially prevent students who did not attend Hawaii public high schools from entering community colleges, he said.

Ige cited similar reasoning in his intent-to-veto message. Cindy McMillan, Ige’s director of communications, said in an emailed statement that the governor also interpreted the bill’s admissions requirement to apply to the entire UH system.

“This bill would have an especially negative effect on nontraditional students, especially those who did not graduate from high school, earn a GED, or are older. The admissions policy would in effect bar them from being admitted, especially as the measure does not provide a substitute for such a requirement for those students,” McMillan said.

University of Hawaii at Manoa campus.
SB 2142 has sparked debate among policymakers and educational actors, especially regarding its provisions on admission requirements for the UH system. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

However, Miyashiro said he understood the bill as simply requiring UH to recognize students’ high school computer science courses as counting toward their degrees in the computer science department. He said the changes could be read as only applying to four-year campuses in the UH system.

Dela Cruz also defended the bill, saying that the requirements would only apply to the four-year campuses that require specific coursework from their applicants. Individual campuses would still retain the power to determine how high school credits might exempt students from lower level classes, he added.

The bill also calls for these changes to take place by 2024, giving UH adequate time to seek guidance on how to interpret the law, he said.

Milianta-Laffin said she is disappointed that SB 2142 ended up on Ige’s intent-to-veto list, but she remains undeterred. The bill’s progress raised key points of debate and created opportunities for collaboration among policymakers, teachers and administrators, she explained.

Change for computer science education is still on the horizon, Miyashiro said.

“That’s the exciting part, is that we still have so much work to do, and there’s so much opportunity,” he said. “So whether or not we’re rated number one or number 50, I think Hawaii should always be striving to be more equitable and more innovative for our kids.”

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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