Computer science is gaining steam. Parents are clamoring for more classes. States are passing initiatives. What started as a grassroots movement is now sweeping across the globe, coalescing around the rallying cry of “computer science for all!”
After decades of discussion about the need for computer science education, the demand for courses in K-12 schools has escalated swiftly. The calls to action are getting urgent, and the sudden shift has left many education leaders reeling.
Schools starting from scratch as well as those looking to expand existing programs both have their work cut out for them — finding qualified teachers, closing the equity gap and figuring out how to scaffold the curriculum, for starters.
But there’s a growing body of resources to help, many of them free. Leaders who are able to strategically employ these resources are the ones leading the CS charge.
Take Rhode Island, for example. The state went from having zero computer science in schools to having it in 80 percent of schools, all in just 18 months. And they did it without any top-down mandates. Their strategy: Leverage resources and partnerships to let schools choose from a menu of options for CS integration.
“The teachers really bought in and got excited,” says Steve Osborn, chief of innovation for the Rhode Island Department of Education. “We’d have no success without our teachers leading it. We invest in our local leaders, and they’re taking ownership of what’s happening.”
This type of change, he adds, can be led by anyone with a vision who can make things happen — whether they’re a superintendent, principal, department chair or classroom teacher.
Tackling the teacher shortage
The first and most pressing issue is getting enough teachers trained to teach computer science. Since most teacher ed programs aren’t yet pumping out CS-qualified graduates, teachers who are currently in the classroom are going to need training.
To meet demand, U.S. schools will need 50,000 computer science teachers at the high school level alone, estimates Janice Cuny, program director for computing education for the National Science Foundation (NSF). That’s not even counting the million-plus K-8 teachers who are being called upon to expose younger students to computer science.
It’s a big task. But schools and districts don’t have to shoulder the costs alone. There are programs all over the world that help fund computer science training for teachers. The NSF alone has pledged $5 million to pilot new professional development programs, many offered at no cost to teachers. Plenty of other organizations are also pitching in. For example:
“Most teachers and schools in the country, if they wanted to teach computer science today, their principals could send teachers to a Code.org workshop,” says co-founder Hadi Partovi, whose organization has trained more than 60,000 teachers so far.
“There’s no budget hurdle. In-service teachers have access to this at a scale and availability that teachers going to schools of education currently don’t have.”
Supporting CS instruction
Teachers need support as they venture outside their comfort zone to teach computer science — and they don’t have to start from scratch. There’s no shortage of free lesson plans, curricula and content frameworks.
“The scope and specificity of instructional resources vary widely,” says the University of Chicago, which has assembled has compiled a toolkit of free resources for leaders through its LeadCS.org program. “Some are designed for a range of grade levels, while others are grade specific. Some are introductory, while others focus on advanced concepts.”
Since instructional resources have been shown to influence the structure, content and strategies used during instruction, it’s important to vet carefully and choose wisely.
LeadCS.org’s instructional resources inventory corrals many of the most visible, well-known and widely used curricula and frameworks in K-12 schools — including the popular Bootstrap curricular module, which teaches algebraic and geometric concepts through computer programming.
Designed by teachers for teachers, Code.org’s computer science curricula were developed as a collaboration between professional software engineers and “some of the best CS teachers in K-12,” Partovi says.
One of the most valuable things a leader can do is cultivate partnerships to draw upon as they work to bring computer science into schools. There’s a lot of grant money available for CS initiatives right now, and many organizations are on the lookout for innovative projects to champion.
Some of the most successful CS ed programs draw upon multiple partnerships for support. In Rhode Island, “we spent time surveying the local landscape to see which partnerships existed and which could be cultivated,” Osborn says. “This is really about rethinking what partnerships in schools look like.”
Start building relationships with:
One of the Osborn’s most valuable partners has been the University of Rhode Island, which has helped create training programs while lending legitimacy and credibility to the initiative. Collaborating with a local university opens a wealth of opportunities for establishing training programs, building up a teacher pipeline, developing standards and frameworks, and adding to the growing body of research on computer science education.
Computer science professionals
Having a professional programmer to lean on can help teachers feel more confident about venturing into computer science. Microsoft’s Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program pairs classroom teachers with CS professionals to team-teach courses.
Parents and community members
Rallying parents and community members to the cause can give an initiative unstoppable momentum. Programs such as Family Code Night and Hour of Code help schools build support and partnerships within their community. Forming ties with after-school programs helps link in-school learning with after-school activities.
Bringing computer science to all students is a massive undertaking, but there’s plenty of aid available. Leaders at every level can leverage these resources to help make it happen.
“I think there’s role for everybody,” Cuny says.