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Educators in Navajo high school see coding as one way to end brain drain

Students in computer science class at Shiprock High School are diving into concepts like basic HTML and CSS. Carrie Jung

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It’s the beginning of fourth period at Shiprock High School, and computer science teacher Abigail Cooksey is taking attendance. “OK, Veronica, I’ve seen. Howie is here,” she said as students filed into class.

It’s the first year this school on the northeastern edge of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico has offered this type of computer science class. While the school does offer other career training electives, Assistant Principal Jeff Sagor said computer science is quickly becoming one of the most popular.

“There aren’t a lot of economically sustainable jobs in this area,” he said.

Unemployment on the Navajo Nation reservation is around 42 percent. And many people find they have to move outside the reservation and, in turn, away from cultural ties, to find a high-paying job. But Sagor is optimistic. 

“The opportunities that coding provides for remote work allows students to have both an economically sustainable job and still be a part of this family and community,” he said.  

Sagor explained that because these jobs can theoretically be done remotely, getting kids interested in computer science careers could help reduce the brain drain that this community and many other small southwestern towns are experiencing. But economist Dennis Hoffman, with Arizona State University, said it may not be that simple.

“I think an increasing number of teams now do work remotely,” he said. “But the question remains, do they begin remotely? There’s less evidence of that.”

But Hoffman also said the demand for people with computer coding skills is high right now, so developing rural talent pools isn’t out of the question.

Back in computer science class, high school senior Alan Taliman is wrapping up the day’s assignment. He said promising job prospects are just an added bonus. For him, coding is fun, like one big puzzle.

“When you type out everything and you find no errors on your page whatsoever, that’s just, like, really exciting,” he said.

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