Computer Science Education for Everyone: A Groundswell of Support

by Janice Cuny | 3/14/2017

Janice Cuny (@JanCuny), known as Jan, is a computer scientist noted for leading efforts in broadening participation and K-12 education in computing. Since 2004, she has worked at the National Science Foundation as Program Director for CISE Directorate.

A basic understanding of computation, its role in problem solving, its wide range of applications, and its impact on society is essential in today’s digital world. Though most students will not end up as software engineers, nearly all benefit from the basic skills needed to use and adapt computation to their own ends.

Janice Cuny

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has long supported researchers and educators across the U.S. to work together to create the foundational knowledge and materials needed to support schools in teaching computer science (CS). NSF’s efforts have emphasized reaching students from those groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in computing: women, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and persons with disabilities. To date, most of the work has focused on education at the high school level and has resulted in prototypes of instructional materials, and models of professional development (PD) for CS teachers. Examples include an introductory course—called Exploring Computer Science (ECS)—and the framework for an all new Advanced Placement® exam—called AP® Computer Sciences Principles (CSP). Both provide rigorous, engaging and inclusive, project-based instruction, connecting CS to the lives and interests of students.

While NSF-funded PD for ECS and CSP has reached thousands of teachers, a number of organizations are working to reach more! Organizations such as the Association for Computing Machinery, the National Center for Women and Information Technology, and the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) joined in early efforts to expand CS education. In 2013, Code.org ignited interest nationally (and globally) particularly through its very successful Hour of Code. State-based organizations such as the Alliance for California Computing Education for Students and Schools (ACCESS) and the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network (MassCAN) have been working to change policies around CS teacher credentialing, course credits, and standards. Code.org supports a number of states and districts in making policy changes, as does the NSF-funded Expanding Computing Education Pathways alliance. Technology Education and Literacy in Schools recruits IT professionals to help in the classroom. National organizations that typically support STEM instruction—including Teach for America, Project Lead the Way, UTeach, and the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) — are adding CS to their menus. And we've seen out-of-school offerings of coding instruction proliferating in clubs and camps. Thousands of teachers, faculty, and IT professionals have contributed to these efforts.

Progress has been dramatic. Many school districts and states now require CS in all K-12 schools – examples include New York City, San Francisco, Broward County (FL), Rhode Island, Virginia, and in 2016, Chicago became the first major district to make CS a graduation requirement. Also in 2016, a new organization — CSforAll.org— formed to build community among national stakeholders and provide resources for parents, teachers, school districts, and education researchers. And the new AP CSP officially launched this year with 2,700 teachers, putting it on track to be the largest AP launch ever.

Amidst all this flurry of activity, much remains to be done. There are still at least 30,000 high school teachers that need to be prepared to teach CS. And although tens of thousands of teachers have been trained at the K-8 level, there are 1.7 million K-8 teachers in our public schools.

To help prepare more teachers, Infosys Foundation USA partnered with the crowd-funding site DonorsChoose.org, CSTA, and NSF in 2016 to provide individual schools and teachers access to PD. This effort allows people to directly support CS teachers in their community. Infosys Foundation USA offers matching donations to many schools, opening a path for schools to attract national, regional, and local funding to support their CS teachers, perhaps providing an important step toward the long term sustainability of groundswell efforts.

Sustainability is key. If CS is to be a routine part of K-12 education, school districts will need to be able to replenish and grow their supply of new CS teachers, and keep their existing CS teachers current in the fast moving tech world. That will require:

  • Development of new, scalable approaches to PD, including both online and hybrid instruction.
  • Creation of pre-service and in-service pathways to CS certification at Schools of Education. Perhaps all K-12 teachers should have a basic course in computing?
  • Building and maintenance of online communities of practice (successful models exist in other disciplines including, for example, the Math Forum, and the Writing Project), lesson study groups, and master teacher/coaching programs.
  • Continued growth of CSTA in providing repositories of instructional materials and assessments, forums for teacher networking, and avenues for teachers to have a voice in district and state policies.
  • Collaboration with community colleges in providing courses for high school students and their teachers who want to go beyond what their schools are currently offering.
  • Increased partnerships with organizations that support STEM more broadly.
  • Accelerated research on the teaching and learning of computing that can provide insights and feedback to make all of these efforts more effective.

It’s an exciting time with lots of opportunity to grow the availability of CS education across the Nation. With continued engagement and resources from organizations and individuals, we can empower a community of well-prepared teachers to make CS education available in all U.S. schools.

Editor's Note: For a more personal view on what inspired Jan to go into computer science, watch her video from CrossRoads 2015.