SHERIDAN, Wyo. — The soldiers were about to storm the fortress when they suddenly went still. James Smith, 17, and his teacher, Shirley Coulter, squinted at the desktop monitor.
Smith was programming his own military game, the final project in his Advanced Placement computer science principles class at Sheridan High School, here in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains. Users competed as countries, like Israel or Japan, to take over a castle. But the game had crashed, and neither Smith nor Coulter — a 19-year veteran whose background is in teaching business classes — could figure out how to debug it.
“I’m learning with the kids,” she said. “They grasp it faster than I do.”
Coulter is one of hundreds of teachers in this sparsely populated state tasked with carrying out one of the most ambitious curriculum reform laws in the nation. Dozens of states have taken steps in recent years to expand students’ access to computer science, but last year, Wyoming became one of the few to require that all K-12 public schools offer it.
The mandate is part of a wide-ranging package of new laws, passed by the state Legislature last year, that is intended to wean Wyoming off its heavy reliance on the oil, gas and coal industries, and stem the flow of young people leaving for better jobs. Both major political parties have embraced the effort, as have tech companies eager to promote a national vision of rural economic revival built on coding skills.
There is little evidence that public school computer science lessons can drive economic change. But those who see them as fundamental to understanding today’s world say the grand promises from politicians do not matter. Nationwide, most students never have the opportunity to take a coding course. Now Wyoming’s 48 school districts have until the 2022-23 school year to begin teaching computer science at every grade level.
Full of coal mines, vast cattle ranches and snow-capped peaks, Wyoming is perhaps an unlikely leader in a drive to bring coding into the classroom. Computer programming and software development account for fewer than two jobs per 1,000 here, compared with 19 per 1,000 in Washington state, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But with half of Wyoming’s revenue coming from the boom-and-bust cycles of the energy sector — one facing an uncertain future because of climate change and environmental regulation — state leaders are looking to branch out.
The education mandate will not be easy to pull off. American public schools have long struggled to define computer science. Do keyboarding classes count, as they did in South Carolina until last school year? What about lessons in digital literacy, such as conducting internet research or protecting personal information online, as they do in Alabama?
Wyoming answered some of these questions with state standards released this spring. All students must learn what an algorithm is (a set of instructions a computer follows to solve a problem). They must grasp concepts such as loops (processes that repeat until certain outcomes are achieved, like entering a correct password after progressively more infuriating failures). They must study the impact of technology on society (immense and sometimes alarming). And they must learn to write their own code (window.alert(“Good luck.”);).