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Why Middle Schoolers Don’t Pursue Technology Education—And How We Can Fix it

By Matthew Stern

Teacher in computer classroom

The school year for Monica Uraga, lead teacher for the cybersecurity magnet program at Barbara Goleman High School in Miami Lakes, Fla., was a busy one, and filled with fun. In the classroom, she started teaching students the ins and outs of 3D printing and letting them experiment and create with an in-house printer, and even got a hold of some virtual reality (VR) headsets for future classroom use. She also brought her classes on field trips to conferences, cyber competitions and other tech-related events, to give them a feel for what real-life careers in the world of technology are all about. Giving students a view into what technology can be, and where it might be heading, for students that age, generates the kind of enthusiasm and curiosity students need to have to stay engaged with the material.

Since Barbara Goleman is a magnet school, the students in Uraga’s classes arrive, reliably, with some of that enthusiasm and curiosity already. They sign up to pursue a technology track, and bring with them different capabilities, expectations and understanding of computing, but all get a boost from Uraga’s hands-on innovative teaching strategies.

But many students are not exposed to technology education before high school, which means they are un- or underprepared for technology coursework once they get there. This is why it is so important to reach students in middle school and why more accessible, easy-to-implement curriculum is the key to closing this gap. Whether students have already discovered they have a penchant for technology or not, lack of access to technology education results in closed doors to opportunities.

Educators have identified a “leaky pipeline” of students interested in technology between middle and high school—students take an interest early on in their education but get put off from pursuing technology seriously before they enter high school. It is a phenomenon that Uraga is familiar with, even as the magnet school concept helps young students recognize and cultivate an interest in technology.

Building Tech Familiarity for Parents and Students

One issue making middle schoolers less likely to keep on with technology is that parents of middle school kids, especially those who are not familiar with technology themselves, can sometimes see screens as a distraction, not a potential career path. Informing middle school parents about technology, its uses and professional value, can help them warm up to their middle schooler’s budding interest and be more supportive.

“It would be beneficial to give out a lot of materials and things through social media in different languages just so that parents are aware that technology is OK, that it’s a good thing,” Uraga said.

Areas of technology once seen as niche or “less serious,” like video game development or even video game playing, today offer paths to mainstream career opportunities. This is something Uraga has been helping her high schoolers appreciate. One class she teaches is focused on video games. A recent class visit to an e-sports lounge highlighted how competitive gaming is emerging as a lucrative industry, and a course with such a fun focus can undoubtedly pique the interest of middle schoolers who hear about it.

Parents appreciating technology as an important pursuit can help overcome another hurdle as well; that of prioritization. With so many things to focus on—standardized tests, AP classes, after-school sports and so on—middle school students have to make choices. Parents and students understanding that early technology education can open doors later on, can help them keep it high up on the list.

Empowering Educators with Age-Appropriate Tech Education

Another concern that may lead middle school students to abandon tech education before high school is the perception that technology is too tough. Uraga has encountered many students who think a career in technology is beyond them.

Likewise, districts may feel that technology is too tough to teach at the middle grade level, or that they do not have the right teachers for the subject area. Curriculum that is designed for a teacher to facilitate can provide an answer to this limitation. Curriculum that is easy for educators to implement is just as important as making sure it is fun and engaging for students.

Age-appropriate curriculum that ensures the right type of exposure to tech basics at the middle school level can not only alleviate apprehension but actually build confidence, it can also make for students that are better prepared to take on tech in high school. While younger students use computing technology more frequently than ever before, devices like smartphones have grown so user-friendly that younger students are arriving in high school without basic computing skills like how to save files. Uraga observes that those who have gotten formal training on computing basics in middle school arrive to her high school classes with a stronger foundation—they understand how to talk tech, and know the right kind of questions to ask. While they might not yet be experts, they do not see computers as mysterious.

The Importance of Keeping Options Open

There seems to be a sweet spot for middle school tech education, one that gets students steeped in the language of technology, having fun with it and seeing its possibilities, without leaning on students too hard, too early, to think about pursuing tech professionally. Offering tech education lessons in middle school puts students on an age-appropriate tech-focused track. Uraga has seen it work in practice, first as an educator—and now as a parent.

Uraga’s daughter, now in the fourth grade, resembles her mother at that age; an early technological adopter and a natural problem solver. She has even taken an interest in coding. Her district has a middle school that focuses on robotics, and that is the path that, at present, looks like it will best suit Uraga's daughter’s interests. 

Of course, not every student is so strongly oriented toward tech at such a young age and not every district has resources for a robotics lab. But even those who are entirely uninterested in technology in middle school may well get excited about it, and succeed in it, later in life with exposure to basic tech skills. Informing both parents and students about middle school tech education options can prevent someone from overlooking an opportunity to develop their talent.

“Everyone’s different,” Uraga said. “Asking a student at that age to choose a major for middle school and for high school and forever is a lot. I can see how it can be daunting for a student or a parent to think in that long-term sense because the kids don’t think that long-term. But if we help them and just have options in place, that doesn’t hurt.”

Matthew Stern is a freelance writer who covers information technology and various other topics and industries.

 

Learn more about the CompTIA Spark technology education curriculum for middle school.