Opinion: Here’s how San Diego Unified prepares students for a new world of work

In the past, building a career was relatively easy. Baby boomers could chart a clear and sustainable course. But the answer today is not that simple. The nature of work has changed, demanding of young professionals both soft skills and technical knowledge, forcing workers to keep pace and harness technological advancements in their careers and take root in the way we produce and let’s use the data.

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Unlike past tech booms, today’s data boom isn’t just for some professionals like tech entrepreneurs and programmers. Workers at all levels and in all functions use tools from Google Sheets to Tableau and R to visualize trends, make sense of analytics reports, and plan their work. Many have started to wonder to what extent primary and higher education prepares our students for the modern economy.

Some regions are adapting more quickly than others to this new reality. In San Diego, for example, data drives decision-making in the city’s rich innovation hub. Big data helps San Diego experts better predict the trajectory of earthquakes; determine how and when to reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic; and predict the impact of the pandemic on the local tourism industry. The city is also paving the way for preparing its students for this new world of work with learning opportunities in data science from pre-kindergarten.

Indeed, as data-driven work continues to grow, the education system must adapt and improve. Preparing students for the job market will require a shift in priorities which is already reflected in new opportunities for federal and philanthropic education funding, including for vocational and technical education programs. Policy makers recognize the need to improve vocational training in our K-12 education system in order to accelerate learning in light of the COVID pandemic and better prepare students for their future.

Even before the pandemic, data science education gained momentum as a 21st century core skill. At the graduate level, data science is now accepted to meet a requirement in mathematics by UC and CalState systems, resulting in an increased demand for K-12 data learning opportunities. Program providers like Bootstrap offer modules to infuse data science concepts into social studies and business courses, emphasizing the relevance of data literacy as an interdisciplinary skill.

When my team at the Center for RISC at the University of Chicago launched the Data Science for Everyone Coalition this year, the highest regional representation in our first engagement campaign came from San Diego, a city that is home to a complex ecosystem of stakeholders taking action to equip students with valuable data science skills.

How? ‘Or’ What? The San Diego Unified School District is expanding data science to more than 120,000 students and providing high school students with a route to focus their math learning in data science with the CourseKata program. The San Diego County Office of Education incorporates data science learning into its vocational and technical, STEM, and computer training courses. UC San Diego Extension supports teacher professional development and K-12 learning through its Sally Ride Science program. And finally, the San Diego chapter of the Computer Science Teachers Association is expanding its teacher professional development offerings to include data science opportunities.

For students, data science naturally connects to the world around them, allowing them to explore their favorite topics in more depth. This year, middle school students from Marston Middle School in San Diego won the Creative Storytelling Award for their project using data to uncover dance history as part of their participation in the National Young Data Scientists Quest program at the Young Data Scientists League.

It is both a celebration of the opportunities that support San Diego students and a call to action for other communities to adopt models that will adequately prepare their students for the new demands of the workforce. States, districts, higher education institutions and community organizations should work together to emphasize the importance of data literacy, as well as to support the growth in the quality and availability of preparation opportunities. Kindergarten to Grade 12 workforce with an emphasis on data literacy.

Beyond its importance in our modern economy, the ability to understand data has simply become a life skill necessary for making decisions and engaging in our communities. As we emerge from this time that has changed our lives in so many ways, let’s make sure we apply lessons to our education system that will better help students prepare for a successful and intellectually fulfilling future.

Levitt is co-author of “Freakonomics” and William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. He lives in Chicago.

About Mark A. Tomlin

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