Computer Science

How a PD Program is Fixing the STEM ‘Branding Problem’

Framing computer science education in a way that interests both teachers and students could help boost the number of teachers seeking computer science certification and increase STEM achievement across K–12.

Many K–12 educators, administrators and other professionals may remember how it was hard to sell the acronym “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, math) when it was initially being introduced into everyday conversation. It turns out there may still be a branding problem within STEM, according to Carol Fletcher, deputy director of the Center for STEM Education, a research, teaching and service unit housed within the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education.

The publicly and privately funded Center for STEM Education strives to be an intellectual hub that unites diverse teams of teachers, community members, district administrators, university researchers, philanthropists, business and civic leaders, and others to:

  • Design and carry out cutting-edge STEM education research;
  • Promote equity and access to STEM learning opportunities;
  • Provide high-quality professional development to practicing STEM teachers; and
  • Distribute research findings, products and instructional supports to everyone working to improve STEM in Texas and across the United States.

Fletcher first joined the Center for STEM Education in 2004 and became the deputy director November 2015. Before her current role, she was the associate director of the Texas Regional Collaboratives, the largest project managed by the Center for STEM Education. She leads the WeTeach_CS program, a subdivision of the project focused on increasing the number of certified computer science (CS) teachers in Texas through ongoing professional development (PD).

THE Journal spoke to Fletcher about her experiences bringing CS education to Texas, which she also discussed at a recent SXSWedu conference panel, “Cracking the Code: K–12 Computer Science Education.”

THE Journal: At SXSWedu, you talked about the Texas Regional Collaboratives model — how has that been beneficial to introducing CS in Texas schools?

Fletcher: It’s essentially a collective impact model for which the backdoor organization is UT Austin, but it is a network of now 80 different projects that we fund and coordinate around the state in either math, science or computer science to do teacher professional development. We at UT provide PD to the people training the teachers. We started about 20-something years ago with science, then we added math regional collaboratives around the state about eight years ago, and then we added computer science two years ago.

All of these projects are partnerships with math, science, engineering or computer engineering professors, and they are partnered with instructionalist specialists who understand K–12 education pedagogy, state standards, etc.

THE: Texas is one of four states to have enacted policies to require all public high schools to offer at least one CS course, and one of 27 states to provide some form of educator CS certification, according to a recent report. What was the Center for STEM Education’s role in achieving this kind of growth?

Fletcher: From a policy perspective, Texas is doing better than most states because we have well-defined standards for CS courses. We have a teacher certification program with standards for that. For students, Computer Science A can count as a fourth-year math credit and as a languages and English credit. I believe we are within the top three states in regards to diversity, with many African American, Hispanic students and females taking [the class]. So, there are a lot things that we’re doing well.

While Texas has CS teacher certification, the challenge was there was no concerted effort on the part of the state to actually prepare new computer science teachers or to help existing teachers grow their computer science skills. That’s why we stepped in. We found that very few teachers were actually going to get certified to teach CS. For the entire state in 2014-15, only 14 teachers completed a pre-service program in CS. We surveyed school district leaders and told them, “Here’s all of the things we can do for you to help you,” and the number one thing they said was, “We need help getting certified teachers,” so that’s what we focused on.

When we started in 2014, I think only about 15 percent of high schools in the state had any kind of CS class, and now I believe we’re around 25 percent. I expect next year we’ll see a pretty big increase as well. We launched the WeTeach_CS program in fall of 2015, and we’ve now certified 237 teachers in computer science to date. That’s through a combination of online PD that we’ve created with Oracle, where teachers can learn Java.

THE: What are some challenges that come with introducing CS curriculum to teachers and students?

Fletcher: I feel like what we have with a lot of STEM careers is a marketing problem. We’re just telling kids, “Oh, you have to be really good at math and science,” and research shows that’s not the best marketing tactic to take to attract students to these careers, particularly young learners. Even young women who are better at math science are saying things like, “I’m not good enough” [for STEM careers], so that’s not that kind of marketing we want to use. We’ve got to find another way of messaging to students who are underrepresented in STEM fields.

THE: How should the messaging for STEM careers be changed?

Fletcher: A couple of things work: talking about the autonomy that people in the STEM fields often have; the creative problem-solving that occurs; the ability to work on meaningful problems that you can solve to make a difference in your community; the collaboration that is part of the design process — those are the kind of the things that if a teacher actually went into and saw those things happening, then they can speak very specifically [to their students]. Also, the work-life balance that is possible in a STEM career, the flexibility that is offered to employees — those are positives that go with having a skill set that is very valued.

THE: One myth is that teachers don’t want to learn computer science. How is the center working to change that impression?

Fletcher: For the WeTeach_CS work for computer science, one of the things that really surprised me was how many teachers actually really want to learn this and are willing to put in the hard work it takes to get there if you give them the support. In other words, you don’t have to go back to college to take graduate-level CS courses, or even undergraduate-level courses for CS majors. What we need is professional development for CS teachers.

Everything [the Center for STEM Education] is doing is filling up. For our Oracle partnership, every single time we’ve run an online course through Oracle Academy called “Keep Calm and Java On,” we’ve had double the number of applicants then we can support for the course, and we’ve now run six or seven cohorts. That is because teachers really are excited to learn and excited about the idea that they can take this course from Oracle with only Texas educators in the class. They also feel a sense of purpose teaching CS because they know that this is something kids need, which is what research is showing, so they feel they’re delivering something of value to students.

THE: What are some other projects on the horizon for CS at the Center for STEM Education?

Fletcher: We’re just now piloting a new program that isn’t even on our website yet for teacher externships. They will go into business and industry to get a better understanding of what that industry does and how it connects to their work — not for the sake of spending a six-week internship working alongside someone doing the same things, but more the idea of providing teachers a real world, concrete example that they can take back to their classrooms.

I call it a kind of “Take Your Teacher to Work Day” because sometimes teachers can say that they know these jobs are out there, but there’s nothing really concrete to hang their hat on. By actually giving them the opportunity to go out and visit those businesses, [teachers] get a real feel for it, develop relationships with people there, and then go back to classrooms and have kids work on project-based learning units where people from the industry could even come in as mentors. We’ve just recently given some teachers grants for the externships and we're going to do the first pilot this summer. And we want to build on that to scale.