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When Special Education doctoral student Lisa Didion was a special education teacher for students with various disabilities in Missouri, she saw her classroom as “a never-ending research experiment.” She enthusiastically talks about her attempts to advance her students to an academic and behavioral level on track with their typically-developing peers.

Didion had already earned a master’s degree in Special Education from Vanderbilt University, with a major in behavior disorders, where she developed a penchant for collecting meaningful data on students’ academic progress and behavioral skills. She often used her interest in data collection as a way of motivating herself.

“One day, on my afternoon run, I began thinking about how my own exercise data motivates me to improve my performance,” she says. She thought collecting that kind of data might be motivational for her students too. “I began teaching my students about data by sharing my own. It was important to illustrate for my students that performance can increase and decrease, and to model for them the appropriate emotional responses to these changes. My main objective was to teach the importance of tracking data to monitor progress.”

Didion paired her teaching of data and its relevance to a science unit her class was doing on landforms. “The intervention taught students about their own data, visualized through a line graph, and explained like climbing a mountain,” she says.

And with that, Data Mountain was born.

“It was my biggest ‘Aha!’ teaching moment,” she says. “I created a bulletin board with construction paper and painters’ tape. My students’ faces on cartoon hikers started their ascent of Data Mountain, climbing a peak each time they reached a goal.” Each Friday, she conferenced individually with students to share their academic and behavioral data. “They connected that their behavior while completing a task influenced their performance, illustrated through their data. They began to improve more quickly on weekly progress monitoring assessments.  Every year after, for a range of data types, most students showed progress when I used Data Mountain.”

An upper-elementary teacher saw the influence Data Mountain had on Didion’s students and began using the procedure for reading fluency in her classroom, with similar results. The idea began to spread.

In fact, Data Mountain became influential throughout the school district and Didion’s innovative teaching earned her Teacher of the Year.

Jessica Toste and her student Lisa Didion

Lisa Didion and Jessica Toste

Didion realized that there was not much written in the education literature on this type of intervention. Some of the research she did find was written by Jessica Toste, assistant professor in the Department of Special Education, whose specializes in motivation research related to students with disabilities. Didion’s desire to pursue a doctorate in the subject led her to the College of Education to study with Toste, who has become her advisor.

Together, Didion and Toste have been conducting a pilot project using Data Mountain as a reading fluency intervention with third-grade students in the Austin area.  Says Toste, “Through this type of work, we hope to explore ways to intensify interventions. We want students to become more autonomous and engaged in their learning, so that they can fully benefit from instruction. This pilot study is a first step. Lisa is passionate about teachers and students using data in meaningful ways, and it has been exciting to empirically test an intervention that organically grew from her teaching practice.”

 

They hope to scale up to a larger investigation, and Didion intends to publish the research, present at conferences, and conduct workshops with teachers to share their methods.

“My ambition was to put science behind my teaching practices and encourage teachers to understand the science behind theirs.”

“When I began to pursue my doctorate, my primary goal was to explore the interventions that were inspired by my students. My ambition was to put science behind my teaching practices and encourage teachers to understand the science behind theirs.  I am so grateful that Dr. Toste supports me in this endeavor, challenges me to continue to ask questions as I dive further into the research, and helps me to take full advantage of the opportunities here.”

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Teacher working with student on Rasberry Pi

In 2014-15, only 14 individuals in Texas completed a pre-service teacher certification program in computer science. In the two school years since, the College of Education’s WeTeach_CS program has helped over 400 current Texas teachers obtain a CS certification.

WeTeach_CS’s Certification Incentive Program (CIP) is a grant-funded project through the Texas Education Agency and 100K in 10 organization. The project, run through the Center for STEM Education, prepares educators in Texas to pass the TExES certification exam in computer science and teach high school computer science classes. Many of the teachers that have gone through the program are STEM teachers, but WeTeach_CS has also helped social studies, elementary, and other teachers of diverse backgrounds gain certification.

Photo of Sandra Sexton

Sandra Sexton, a teacher at Utopia ISD who teaches algebra, calculus, graphic design, computer science, and web design was the 300th teacher to be certified through the program. Since Sexton teaches in a small rural district with only a few hundred students, the only way her district could offer computer science classes was to become certified herself. Schools in rural areas often have a harder time recruiting computer science teachers, compared to urban and suburban districts.

“I had a small group of students that wanted to learn about computer science last year. We even started a University Interscholastic League Computer Science Team for them, placing 5th at State last year. One of the students was a junior and wanted to continue taking computer science classes his senior year. So, I decided to get certified to be able to offer that for him and for others,” says Sexton.

The WeTeach_CS program prepares teachers to take the certification exam through either a 6-week online course or an intensive 2-day face-to-face workshop. The in-person option offers sessions in Austin, but also travels to other cities and rural school districts throughout Texas.

“I really benefited from the WeTeach_CS Summit in Austin, as well as the online CS course authored by John Owen. He is simply amazing at explaining the CS topics covered on the certification exam,” says Sexton.

A goal of the program is to ensure a wide range of students have access to computer science education. Increasing the number of certified teachers is the first step toward accomplishing that. So far, the schools served by the WeTeach_CS program have been 35 percent rural, 43 percent urban, and 22 percent suburban.

As Sexton explains, “Students must be exposed to computer science at a young age in order to form the belief that they can do it. If the exposure waits until high school, so many kids believe they ‘can’t’ do it or ‘it’s only for smart kids’ and are afraid to try. I want our students to be producers of apps and programs, not just consumers.”

Photo of Victor Sampson

Victor Sampson

The push for computer science teachers in Texas comes at an opportune time. As Victor Sampson, director of the Center for Stem Education, puts it, “WeTeach_CS is at the forefront of the computer science education trend in the U.S. As more STEM careers require some type of computing knowledge, it is critical to expose students to computer science from an early age.”

National organizations such as the CSforAll Consortium are working to connect computer science programs and make computer science literacy an integral part of the educational experience. According to CSforAll, only 8 percent of STEM graduates are in CS, but 71 percent of new STEM jobs are in CS.

“We are trying to fill the gap between the increasing demand and limited supply of CS teachers. As computing skills become a requirement as opposed to a supplement, we want to ensure that all students have access to CS education regardless of their background. That starts with teachers,” says Carol Fletcher, Deputy Director of the Center for STEM Education.

In addition to certification preparation, WeTeach_CS offers numerous additional professional development opportunities such as training in Java programming, AP Computer Science Principles, and even 3D printing through partnerships with Oracle Academy, Code.org, Bootstrap, and more to help teachers go beyond simply passing the certification exam. Teachers can also attend the WeTeach_CS Summit, which is a three-day event that brings together close to 300 K-12 CS educators in Texas to improve their content knowledge, instructional skills, and network with colleagues who are also learning to bring computer science experiences to their students.

The proverb, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” has been around since the 17th century. Over three hundred years later, it’s still widely understood that play is important to rejuvenation and creativity.

Education researchers also understand that, for children, play is essential to learning.

Experts like Christopher Brown, an associate professor at the College of Education of The University of Texas at Austin, are alarmed by the sharp reduction in play time for kindergarteners.

In Brown’s recent op-ed, published in the Conversation and Yahoo News, “Researchers have demonstrated that five-year-olds are spending more time engaged in teacher-led academic learning activities than play-based learning opportunities that facilitate child-initiated investigations and foster social development among peers.”

This shift is alarming, says Brown, because, “focus on rules can diminish children’s willingness to take academic risks and curiosity as well as impede their self-confidence and motivation as learners – all of which can negatively impact their performance in school and in later life.”

Christopher Brown during the recording session for Academic Minute.

Associate Professor Christopher Brown

Brown’s research-based perspective is becoming a call-to-action among the public. He has appeared on programs like the Academic Minute and most recently on Wisconsin Public Radio’s On Point broadcast.

Says Brown, a former kindergarten teacher, “No one … is advocating for the elimination of academics in kindergarten. … Kindergartners require more balanced learning experiences that nurture their development and their desire to learn and interact with others. This will improve their performance in school and assist them in seeing school as a place that will help them and their friends be better people.”

 

Jane Gray and Kevin Stark

Kevin Stark and Jane Gray

Educational Psychology Professor Kevin Stark and Clinical Assistant Professor Jane Gray are leaders in psychological assessment and treatment of youth in schools. Stark is co-founder of the Texas Child Study Center at Dell Medical Center in Austin, where Gray is director of psychology training. Stark is recognized internationally as an expert in the treatment of youth depression and is a nationally recognized expert in the application of cognitive-behavioral interventions to behavior problems in schools. Gray is also director of behavioral health at the Texas Center for Prevention and Treatment of Childhood Obesity.