Gentz: Community engagement better prepares tomorrow’s workforce

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Currently moving through the Iowa statehouse is legislation that advocates for computer science curriculum in elementary, middle and high school.

The goal of the bill is commendable, however, it can be pushed further to truly reflect what the next generation of learning will be. It is easy to see that workforce models are shifting across the globe with remote workers and more opportunities to be involved in the community through work. Yet, when we look at education, classrooms look remarkably similar to early 1900s classrooms.

It is time for Iowa, as a state and not just a handful of districts, to move forward and educate students in the way they will likely work in the future. This means learning outside of school walls and school hours, and experiencing true community engagement. If we want a workforce prepared on Day One for the job, we need to educate them in environments that reflect the workplace.

Earning Academic Credit Through Community Partners

The Des Moines metro is rich with both community programs and needs. If the computer science legislation is enacted, organizations such as Pi 515 could partner with districts to provide a pathway for students to engage with computer science curriculum. Students who currently participate in Pi 515 do not get any academic credit for their work. If we pass a law that requires students to take a computer science course, there is no reason Pi 515 couldn’t provide credit toward graduation. This lessens burdens on districts who don’t have teachers that can effectively teach these courses and demonstrates to students that they can learn outside of classroom walls. (We all need to look at what Iowa BIG is doing).

The new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and replaces No Child Left Behind, also gives a nod to community engagement.

The “community engagement” piece in Iowa has so far been a listening tour done over the summer for input on a state plan that is required under the federal law for accountability purposes. This is the old way of thinking for community engagement. It is a one-time stop in various communities across the state, rather than a continuous partnership for student learning.

The new look of community engagement requires leaders to think of creative opportunities for students to earn credit, and under the new law, it’s all possible. ESSA gives decision making power back to the states. If Iowa leaders agree that students who show proficiency in computer science — even if they gained their knowledge at outside organizations like Pi 515 — should be eligible for credit toward Iowa graduation requirements, then it is allowed.

The computer science requirements are just one area where community engagement might take place. Students often don’t do well in courses because the work they are doing is stripped completely out of context. While visiting Iowa BIG, one group’s project was designing a writing apparatus for a man in the community who lost use of his thumb. The group was creating a cylinder to attach a pen, so the utensil could still be held. You better believe those kids knew why they were learning how to calculate circumference.

These real-life problems in the community provide context for students. Also, students who know the community are more likely to stay or return to it after post-secondary education.

We need to look at what the next-gen workforce needs to be successful. That means looking at how we educate students now. It is possible through finding community partners to keep students engaged in their learning, and in Iowa.

Susan Gentz is the deputy executive director for the Center for Digital Education and a contributing commentary writer for Clay & Milk.