Computer Science in Colorado: Our Q&A with Code.org

Colorado has recently moved from the back of the pack on computer science and technology education to a role of national leadership. This has included passing legislation, like the Expanding Access to Computer Science Education law, and starting new initiatives, such as P-TECH schools.

Our partners at Code.org have been instrumental in helping Colorado pursue the most promising policies and practices from across the nation to bolster computer science in our state. Code.org is a non-profit dedicated to expanding access to computer science and increasing participation by women and underrepresented groups. Their vision is that every student in every school has the opportunity to learn computer science, just like biology or algebra.

Over the past year, Colorado Succeeds, Code.org, and many of our partners supported the development and passage of Colorado’s new computer science education law. The bill has three key components:

  • Instructs the state to include technology skills into Colorado’s  academic standards during its upcoming standards revision process.
  • Creates a free, open source, and voluntary resource bank for teachers, schools, and districts that want to expand computer science offerings. This bank of materials will provide a one-stop-shop for educators. It will also be informed by industry.
  • Allows industry experts to co-teach computer science and technology courses (without a teaching license) to the next generation of tech entrepreneurs.

In order to increase the number of computer science educators, separate legislation created a grant program that supports educators in pursuing computer science education and training.

At Colorado Succeeds, we know passing policy is just the first step in effecting change. We sat down with Jake Baskin, Code.org’s director of state government affairs and a former high school computer science teacher, to hear what next steps Colorado should take when rolling out the new computer science bill and how to ensure equitable access, especially in underserved areas across the state.

What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

Colorado Succeeds: Tell us about Code.org

Jake Baskin: Code.org is a national non-profit that is focused on ensuring that every student has the opportunity to learn computer science. We have a three-pronged approach. At the heart of our approach is creating high-quality curriculum and professional development so that teachers who are not computer science teachers can become computer science teachers, and have something they can implement in their classrooms, and be supported in doing that.

We also have a promotional wing that is focused on demystifying what computer science is. Then we have an advocacy focus that looks to remove barriers from equitable computer science education and help promote policies that will expand access to computer science across the country.  We work within structures states have to promote computer science education.

St. Vrain students at IBM's summer Innovation Academy
St. Vrain students at IBM’s summer Innovation Academy.

CS: How do you think Colorado stacks up against other states when it comes to computer science education, especially with the passage of the 2017 computer science bill?

Baskin: I think it is a great start. Colorado is now one of only 21 states that either has computer science standards or is in the process of creating them. Clearly defining what high-quality computer science looks like is a first step toward teaching it in classrooms.

But it is certainly only a first step, and without additional work there will continue to be students who are not learning this foundational skill. My big concern is that past experience tells us that it is traditionally underserved students who are left out of this foundational knowledge

CS: What would be some of the subsequent steps you would recommend?

Baskin: Beyond creating standards through the computer science bill, it is thinking about how will (the law) be implemented, So focusing funding like the educator grant program on programs that will have an immediate impact on the quality and quantity of computer science education.

That means funding professional learning that goes with high-quality curriculum so that computer science is immediately being added in the classrooms. And when we are talking about equity, it is making sure all students have access. One way we’ve seen of ensuring this is having a plan so that every single secondary school in the state is offering at least one computer science class. It isn’t a requirement that every student must take it, but every student should have the option of signing up for a computer science class if they’re interested.  

CS: Educator buy-in will be critical. Do you have advice for how we can ensure that educators are aware of and taking advantage of the grant program? Is there a role for industry to play, by providing trainings, course materials, site visits, etc.?

Baskin: This is going to be a team effort. First and foremost, we need to make sure that educators know they are going to be supported as they are embarking on computer science. It can be scary to say ‘I am going to teach a computer science class for the first time.’

Industry and other non-profits can come in and provide not just high-quality curriculum but also support of professional learning that goes with that. I want to make sure teachers know that there are other people they can fall back on, people with experience who can help them through this process.

In thinking about the grants, it is essential that they be tied to programs that will directly impact the quality of computer science education in the short term.

There also needs to be a broader marketing campaign where we make sure everyone understands the impact of teaching these skills to all students. I want teachers, school leaders, and parents to know that right now there are over 13,000 open computing jobs in the state, with an average salary that is nearly double the overall average in the state: More than $98,000 a year. At the same time, there were only 785 computer science graduates from Colorado in 2015, and only 15 percent of them were women.

When I think of what computer science looks like for students down the line, it’s more than just jobs at Microsoft. When a mechanic slides under a car, they’re not just changing the oil, they are working with a machine that has more than 100 million lines of code. If we aren’t making sure every student is learning these skills, we are not helping prepare them for the future.

CS: Do you have any advice for ensuring the sustainability of the grant program?

Baskin: Tying the program to efforts that will have an immediate impact on quantity as well as quality. Programs that will work with teachers who are immediately implementing computer science in the upcoming school year so that we can immediately show how it is expanding access. And focusing on schools that are serving students who traditionally have not had access to it.

CS: Tech industry professionals are now able to co-teach computer science in schools without needing a teaching license. What has made these models successful elsewhere? How could that be improved?

A St. Vrain Valley Schools student at the Innovation Center in Longmont
A St. Vrain Valley Schools student at the Innovation Center in Longmont.

Baskin: (Co-teaching) is a great way to jump start a computer science program. But is important to acknowledge that working in industry is not the same as teaching. In the long term, any program like this needs to be focused on building content knowledge within the classroom teacher, and making sure what’s also valued is the teacher’s experience and knowledge around teaching. You need both these components to make a successful computer science program.

Where co-teaching models have been successful is in developing capacity within the school. Not a one-classroom focus but a whole-school focus. Also, computer science teachers often feel they are on an island; the only person in their school or district doing this. So it’s really helpful to have an industry professional acting as a resource, someone who understands the content, someone the teacher can fall back on and get support from.

CS: The majority of Colorado’s school districts – 141 out of 178 districts – are designated as rural. How can we support districts that typically lack computer science resources, sometimes even broadband internet, in providing computer science learning opportunities?

Baskin: Small rural districts have long been uniquely resourceful in how they teach other content that we consider the core right now. There is a lot to learn from them about brining teachers in who maybe came from a different content background originally and have them pick up computer science and add that in.

In terms of some of the technical limitations, there are actually a lot of concepts in introductory computer science that can be introduced, especially in elementary school, without having to use computers. Logic, problem-solving, sequencing, all can be introduced in unplugged lessons.

To learn more about the progress of STEM in Colorado, click here.

Shannon Nicholas

Director of Communications and Programs
Colorado Succeeds

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