The new program will be similar to the MAD Academy and the VADA Academy currently offered at Santa Barbara High School.
Paul Wellman (file)

Santa Barbara High School will have a new Computer Science Academy next year. The program, approved by the school board at Tuesday’s meeting, will be similar to the MAD Academy at SBHS or the Engineering Academy at Dos Pueblos High School, except that it will be an “open” academy, meaning students could take just a course or two rather than being required to take several courses for three or four years.

At a board meeting two weeks ago, board members voiced concerns about attracting enough girls to the program, a nation-wide problem in the field. In the three computer science classes currently offered at Santa Barbara High School, only seven percent are females. But SBHS Computer Science teacher Paul Muhl said his top two students are consistently females. (The young ladies are teaching a group of middle school girls at a computer science camp.) Muhl plans to incorporate art into the curriculum to attract more females — and males, too, he said.

“Typically it’s the industry that hasn’t had a lot of women,” said boardmember Monique Limon. “It is a problem,” she added. “In higher education, students are already weeded out. We’re starting young…I think what we’re doing is unique.”

Muhl, Principal John Becchio, and calculus teacher Richard Johnston are spearheading efforts to spread awareness about the benefits of the subject. Muhl considers middle school age (and younger) a good time to educate youth about computer science. It’s not “just for nerdy guys,” he said, adding that a big part of his outreach is to “demystify” software engineering. So far, he’s been successful. Based on preliminary numbers, Muhl said the amount of interested students for next year has doubled.

Supporters of the program also pointed to recent stats that 1.5 million industry jobs are expected to be available next year, but only 10 percent of schools offer computer science courses. “It’s very exciting,” said Muhl, adding that he hopes coding competitions and field trips will be part of the academy. “There’s a lot of great data.”

“Computer science at SBHS has reached a point where we are more than just a couple of elective classes,” said Becchio. “We are more than just an intro, middle, and capstone course.”

In California, students don’t get math or science credit for computer science courses. A handful of bills are currently going through the state legislature to attempt to expand programming from a niche area to a common field. If these bills pass, the Board of Education would have to develop computer science standards and colleges would have to create guidelines for admission credit.

Startup expenses for the district will be $167,000 over two years, which will include curriculum development, a second computer, and a laptop lab for the 2015-2016 school year.


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