Computer Science for All in Delaware: The Partner4CS Effort

Recent policy efforts such as Computer Science for All, emphasize the importance of helping allstudents acquire a deeper understanding of how to recognize aspects of computation in the world around us, solve real-world problems, design systems, and understand human behavior by drawing on computer science concepts (Royal Academy of Engineering, 2012; Wing, 2006).  These goals have been described in the literature under the term computational thinking (Wing, 2006).  Wing (2006) suggested that computational thinking is a fundamental skill for everyone and that “to reading, writing, and arithmetic, we should add computational thinking to every child’s analytical ability” (p. 33).

Although many children are exposed to new technologies in their daily lives, they often acquire skills as consumers and are given little opportunity to become creators of computing innovations (Repenning et al., 2015).  In fact, only a small and homogeneous group of students acquire skills required to create technological products.  Certain populations such as females and non-Asian minorities remain severely under-represented in computing (Cuny, 2012).  Traditionally computer science has had low presence in K-12 schools due to a number of reasons including: lack of teacher preparation, limited understanding of computer science-related career opportunities available, lack of computer science curricula, and hesitance in allowing computer science to count towards mathematics or science graduation requirements.  Yet, by 2018 it is projected that 51% of all STEM jobs will be in computer science-related fields (Carnevale, Smith, & Melton, 2011).

At the high school level, there has been substantial progress in providing access to computer science due to initiatives sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF).  One such initiative is the CS10K project. The CS10K initiative is a systemic effort to transform computing education across the academic pipeline, increase the number of students from under-represented groups studying CS, and prepare 10,000 teachers in 10,000 high schools teaching curricula focusing on Computer Science Principles.  The University of Delaware Partner4CSteam has been a recipient of a CS10K award since 2012.  But, while progress at the high school level is important, changes must be made across the entire computing education system, as it is during middle school that students decide whether computer science is worth exploring (Bruckman et al., 2009). As a result, it is important to include middle school students (grades 5-8) from all racial backgrounds in any effort to democratize the field of computing, since changing only one aspect of the system (e.g., high school) will not correct the problem. By providing middle school students from all racial backgrounds exposure to computer science early on, we can increase the number and diversity of students selecting a computer science course or computer science-related pathway in high-school.  In addition, while many efforts to broaden participation in computing focus on K-12 systems, it is becoming evident that schools cannot fulfill the goals of CS for All alone. Rather, informal institutions such as libraries, community-based organizations, and after-school programs should play an active role in supporting formal school efforts and providing resources potentially unavailable in K-12 classrooms.

Our Partner4CS team seeks to broaden participation in computing and fulfill goals of CS for all through a three-pronged approach: teacher professional development, a college field-experience course, and sustainable partnerships with formal and informal organizations.  The Partner4CS professional development model, offered yearly since 2012 in Delaware, includes two components: a summer institute, structured around two tracks (CSP Track and Module Track); and follow-up site-based support. The CSP Track, focuses on high school teachers who are committed to integrating a full CS curriculum in their classroom. The second track, called Module Track, focuses on middle and high school teachers as well as participants in informal settings (e.g., libraries) who are interested in infusing CS modules into existing STEM curricula or programs.

To provide follow up support to our participants, we established a Field Experience university service-learning course at the University of Delaware, where Undergraduates in computer science directly support teachers or informal educators in their classrooms or settings. The course has been offered continuously since spring 2013. The field experiences take place in local middle and high schools where teachers are working on integrating computer science principles into their courses and after-school programs. Recently, we expanded to libraries interested in offering computing initiatives.  Undergraduate participants in the course meet with teachers to discuss their role and provide ongoing support directly in teachers’ classrooms or in libraries. Throughout the duration of the project, Undergraduates work collaboratively with teachers and other informal educators to adapt lessons and activities from available resources, lead classroom sessions, and serve as role models for students.  They also help plan and lead after-school computing programs where they engage students in programming activities.

Since 2013, we have reached over 100 teachers in 7 school districts and over 25 different schools.  Results indicate that teachers who participate in our professional development program improve in their understanding of CS content, learn pedagogical strategies for teaching CS modeled during the professional development, and become more confident in their ability to deliver CS modules and curricula. As one participant explained, I feel absolutely empowered to teach CS principles in my own classroom. Further, students working with undergraduate students through the field experience course exhibited significant gains in their CS content knowledge and attitudes towards CS.

Moving forward, we are interested in establishing certification programs for teachers in computer science and further expand our reach to schools and informal environments serving primarily under-represented populations.  Our goal is to ensure that computer science is available to all Delaware students independent of gender, ethnic or socioeconomic background.  Given the prominence of computer science in daily life and career opportunities available in the field, it is important that all children have equal access to computer science knowledge and skills.

Written by:  Lori Pollock and Chrystalla Mouza – University of Delaware