Wanted: More computer science in American schools

Can America's economy and workforce keep up with the need for professionals who have computer science skills?

The Department of Commerce says jobs in the so-called STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- have grown three times as fast as non-STEM employment over the past decade. And it says STEM workers are playing a key role in "the sustained growth and development of the U.S. economy."

But recent reports say the U.S. isn't producing enough current and future employees with STEM skills, and that not enough high school students are taking the courses needed to fill those jobs. One of the essential disciplines that need strengthening at the high school level, experts say, is computer science.

"Computer science has basically become the foundational skill that you're going to need for any STEM field these days," Barbara Ericson, a research scientist and director of Computing Outreach at Georgia Tech, told CBS MoneyWatch. "You're going to need some knowledge of what a computer can and cannot do."

According to Code.org, a nonprofit group that promotes greater access to computer science, especially among low-income, female and minority students, only 26 states allow students to count computer science courses toward their high school graduation. Even though nearly 600,000 computing jobs are available nationwide, Code.org said only 38,000 computer science students graduated into the workplace last year.

An Advanced Placement computer science course is available that's considered the equivalent of a college-level, introductory course. But Georgia Tech's Ericson said less than 5,000 of the nation's more than 40,000 high schools offer it.

Along with advocacy from Code.org and other organizations, efforts are underway to change these statistics. In New York City, Mayor Bill DeBlasio recently announced a decade-long plan to make sure all students in the city's public school system are offered computer science courses. High school computer science programs are already available to students in Chicago and San Francisco.

But a recent Gallup Poll, done in collaboration with Google (GOOG), found a lot of obstacles remain in the way of establishing computer science courses in most schools. According to the study, only 40 percent of the nation's middle and high school students report using computers on a daily basis in school (however, another recent study found that excessive use of computers in the classroom could harm overall learning).

Parents and students appear to place a high value on computer science education. The poll said around two-thirds of parents with children in grades 7 through 12 believe their children should be required to learn computer science.

But the poll found few school principals and superintendents felt computer science should be a priority for their school or district. Just 7 percent of principals and 6 percent of superintendents reported a high demand by parents for such courses.

"The kids and parents are interested -- the administrators don't get it," said Ericson. "So, there's a big disconnect."