Washington, D.C. – President Obama has a message for young students: coding isn’t just for nerdy white guys anymore.

Obama’s “Computer Science for All Initiative,” which will be part of his upcoming FY 2017 budget request, expected to be released on February 9, provides $4 billion in funding for states and $100 million for districts to increase access to computer science for kindergarten through high school (K-12) students.

The funding will help encourage younger students to learn computer science, among other rigorous science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses, and ensure all students can learn to code, including girls and underrepresented minorities.

The initiative aims to train teachers, expand access to high quality instructional materials, and build regional partnerships with organizations and companies like Google. Federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education, will be helping to fund and carry out the initiative.

Why now?

The initiative hopes to prepare students for a technology-dependent future. “Our economy is rapidly shifting, and educators and business leaders are increasingly recognizing that CS is a “new basic” skill necessary for economic opportunity and social mobility,” according to a White House press release.

Despite the need for computer science literacy, only one quarter of K-12 schools in the United States offer computer science courses with programming and coding, and only 28 states allow computer science courses to count towards high school graduation, the press release states.

Parents also see problematic gaps in their school systems – parents of 7th to 12th graders are almost unanimous in their call for expanding computer science education, according to a Gallup Poll conducted in August last year.

Specifically, 9 out of 10 parents say computer science classes are a good use of school resources and 91 percent of parents want their children to learn more computer science in the future.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 1.3 million jobs in computer and mathematical fields will appear by 2022, according to Gallup, and parents and students want to be prepared for it. About 85 percent of parents say it is somewhat or very likely that their children will need to know computer science for a future job, and 90 percent of 7th to 12th graders say they think the same thing.

The Obama Administration wants to help students reach their potentials in computer science by eliminating existing disparities, according to the White House. In the fewer than 15 percent of all U.S. high schools that offered any Advanced Placement (AP) computer science course in 2015, only 22 percent of those who took the exam were girls, and only 13 percent were African American or Latino students, the White House says.

It is important to encourage more underrepresented populations to take computer science, the White House says, because computer science is an “active and applied field of STEM learning that allows students to engage in hands-on, real-world interaction with key math, science, and engineering principles.” Computer science literacy gives students opportunities to drive the growing field, not just consume its products, the White House says.

Khairi Reda, a research assistant at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory and computer science Ph.D. candidate, shows a visualization of a balls-and-sticks model of a molecular chemistry dataset to fellow students. The clouds represent the density of electrons around atoms. The chemistry models and simulation data were provided by Aslihan Sumer, Juliuis Jellineck and Michael Papka of the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility at Argonne National Laboratory. This research is supported by a National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation.

The initiative

STEM education, which only recently officially includes computer science, has been an especially important topic for Obama. He signed the first successor to the No Child Left Behind Act, which emphasizes the importance of STEM and reinforced his support for STEM during his final State of the Union address.

His new initiative will provide $4 billion in funding to the Department of Education, available over 3 years, for states to increase access to computer science in classrooms. States need to submit comprehensive 5-year plans to incorporate courses in order to receive funds.

The budget also provides $100 million in competitive grants for districts to add computer science courses, including those serving underrepresented students.

The National Science Foundation is committing $120 million to the initiative over the next 5 years to help implement computer science in classrooms. NSF will also collaborate with the private sector to support high school computer science teachers.

Efforts at the state and district level are already underway – for example, Delaware is expanding computer science education to 13 high schools and launching an online course; Hawaii is integrating computer science education with other core subjects like writing, science and technology; and the second largest school district in Illinois is developing a new curriculum that integrates coding alongside math.

The private sector is also lending support to the initiative – for example, Apple developed a simple programming language called Swift to make coding less intimidating to teachers and students; Cartoon Network will feature two new series with main characters who code (one of the series is its beloved Powerpuff Girls); and Google will research ways to engage students in computer science and provide resources to classrooms, among other actions.

“In the new economy, computer science isn’t an optional skill; it’s a basic skill right along with the three “R’s,” Obama said in his recent weekly address that featured the initiative. “Today’s auto mechanics aren’t just sliding under cars to change their oil, they’re working on machines that run on as many as a hundred million lines of code,” he said. “That’s a hundred times more than the space shuttle.”

By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow