Is Computer Science A Foreign Language? Ga. Says Yes, Sees Boost In Enrollment

Michael Reilly , right, helps students in a technology class at Lanier High School in Buford, Georgia.

Kaitlin Kolarik / WABE

After the bell rings at Lanier High School in Buford, Georgia, Michael Reilly asks to see his students’ faces, because most are hidden behind computer screens.

Reilly is a technology teacher at the Center for Digital Technology (CDAT) at Lanier High School, where he teaches an elective class called Programming, Games, Apps and Society. Students work in teams or individually at their own pace to build their own apps for Android phones this semester.

To build these apps, the students are learning how to code in the programming language Java.

College Admissions

Since the fall of 2014, students have been able to take computer science classes, where they learn programming languages like Java or Python, in place of foreign language classes like French or Spanish.

Reilly helped the state come up with the strategy to boost enrollment in high school computer science classes.

The University System of Georgia (USG), which includes all of the state’s public colleges and universities, changed its college entrance requirements to support the change.

Statewide, since the USG shifted its policy and the state board of education put more emphasis on hiring computer science teachers, the number of students taking computer science classes has grown by more than 50 percent.

To help free up his students’ schedules so they would be able to take more computer science classes, he wondered: why not allow some students to pursue classes that would lead to guaranteed jobs?

“That’s how this really came about,” Reilly said. “Kids were required to take two years at least of foreign language that frankly most people don’t use after they’re done.”

That’s how the former developer-turned-high school teacher convinced former state Rep. Mike Dudgeon to push Gov. Nathan Deal to approve a change allowing students to substitute foreign language requirements with computer science classes.

“This is the highest demanding career there is right now, and there’s no room in a kid’s schedule to take it,” Reilly said.

Talent Shortage

The reason behind the push to increase the number of students entering computer science careers is a shortage of qualified workers in the state.

Georgia employers posted a daily average of 5,010 job openings on their websites over the past 30 days for IT-related jobs, according to the Technology Association of Georgia.

“The computing job shortage will be a million-plus by 2020,” Rodney Sampson, chairman of Opportunity Hub and a partner at Tech Square Labs in Midtown Atlanta, said.

“And so are those going to be Americans in those jobs? Who’s going to be in those jobs?”

Still, as many private colleges and universities in Georgia and out-of-state schools still require foreign language classes as part of their entrance requirements, the USG policy shift can limit where students apply to college.

Language Debate

Lanier High School junior Steven Harmon, is one student taking computer science classes to fulfill his foreign language requirement. He said it’s a lot like learning Spanish.

“We have to learn like acronyms and abbreviations for everything, and we have to learn the syntax for everything,” Harmon said. “Like syntax is basically grammar.”

Reilly doesn’t totally agree with his student. He said computer science is much closer to math.

“I took French in high school, and I remember it well,” Reilly said. “Not the language. Just taking the class. And that’s part of the decision that influenced me to pursue this.

“It wasn’t as useful to me as [computer science] is. And I’m not pretending that this is a language. Technically, they call it one, it’s actually more of a geometrical proof, concept of computational thinking.”

Reilly said he’s felt animosity from some of his liberal arts colleagues at Lanier High School:

“There’s been significant – I don’t know what you call it – it’s not necessarily hate or anything, but it does border on resentment, of ‘That’s not a language,’” Reilly said. “We’re not saying it’s a foreign language.”

Foreign Languages

Just around the corner from the computer science classrooms, Loyda Zamot is greeting her students in Spanish.

She said foreign languages should continue to be required by Georgia colleges.

“When you learn a new language, it’s like opening a new window in a room,” Zamot said. “You see things from a whole new perspective. It’s not just language. It’s culture, new people.”

But she said if there is one good thing to come out of the change, it’s that many students who want to learn Spanish are now in her class because they want to be … and not because they have to.

Computer Science Interest

At Lanier High School, Reilly surveyed students and found that nearly half of students taking computer science classes are using it as their foreign language requirement.

And some are on track to become certified programmers when they graduate high school.

“I see the job opportunity. I see opportunity for kids who could break the cycle of poverty in their family after high school,” Reilly said. “That’s what’s most intriguing to me and we’ve been denying [students] that opportunity.”

It’s a skill, he said, more and more companies are demanding, like State Farm, FirstData and Home Depot. Companies tell him they need more IT talent and exposure to computer science early on. So industry leaders are more actively partnering with teachers on shaping school curriculums and offering internships.

The Georgia Board of Education also said it’s spending more time and resources training teachers.

“We’re aggressive about the beginning of the pipeline of developers,” Reilly said. “I see the moves of Gwinnett. We’re ten percent of the state and we’re trying to do this. I’m confident most states aren’t as aggressive about it.”

It’s a pipeline he hopes will get stronger and help to attract even more businesses to the Atlanta area, like Amazon, which is now considering where to place its second headquarters.