Harnessing Existing Interest in Computer Science Education
I know a lot of people who are interested in being involved in high school computer science. People who leave their desk for an hour in the middle of the day to go help out in a classroom. People who mentor teenage interns. People who call me from across the country to ask how I got into teaching. People who are truly brilliant teachers. And people who have training as well as experience. What can we do to better harness that energy?
One of the things that each of us already teaching (in larger districts) can do is to work with our districts to replicate our programs in other local schools. The presence of one successful CS program can have a snowball effect if the right people are brought to the table. In Washington state, Career and Technical Education directors and pathway leaders can be incredibly powerful allies since they establish district-wide vision for CTE courses and allocate some funding accordingly. They know all the schools and principals and can make suggestions as to where a CS program might fit. In Seattle Public Schools, we already have another excellent, dedicated computer science instructor in place and are hoping to keep expanding to more schools.
I think there already does exist a very powerful system for giving computer science students a love of teaching and for providing them with the very targeted skills necessary to successfully teach computer science material — teaching assistant programs. Most of the high school CS teachers I know were TAs at some point and I was greatly influenced by my time in UW’s undergraduate TA program which involves a teaching seminar that covers grading strategies, addressing difficult students, teaching particularly difficult topics and so on. Stanford has a class with over 80 students learning to teach computer science. I’m sure that every year, several graduates of those kinds of programs seriously think about going into high school teaching but the lack of obvious mentors and clear positions scares them away. This is something I don’t know how to address — how can we make it easier for those kinds of students to find high school teacher mentors and help them navigate the certification and job-finding process in their particular area? For me, connections through the UW computer science department’s outreach program were critical. I also ended up cold-calling several people at the district and various schools. I’d be curious to know how other computer science teachers found their positions and figured out the certification process.
In Seattle, we have well-trained computer scientists with teaching certificates ready to step into the classroom. Our ability to expand is dictated by district and school budgets — right now, in order to create a CS position, something else has to go. I think part of the trick to address this involves creating student demand. As students hear about interesting things their friends at other schools are working on, they may start talking to their parents about wanting to take CS classes and PTAs are another critical ally able to sway school offerings.
Obviously, not everyone interested in CS education wants to make it into their full-time job. I’ve had the opportunity to play matchmaker and help friends find computer science classrooms to volunteer in but I wonder what kind of response a formalized system for matching high school CS teachers with speakers and volunteers might get. Of course, relying on existing social networks has the benefit of providing a vetting process but it would be interesting to see how many people would like to be involved with youth learning computer science but just don’t know how to get started. Maybe if companies saw several of their employees getting involved in high school education they would be more willing to take a page out of Microsoft’s book and mentor high school interns.
There’s a lot of existing energy around high school computer science education and I think those of us in that field have a responsibility to harness and augment it. What else should we be doing?