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Graduation Cap and career options

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College is a time when many people engage in the exploration, self-discovery, and knowledge building that will shape who they are and what they will achieve in their future. During these few years, students are often learning for the first time where their passions lie.

Choosing a major that aligns with their interests early in their college career can have significant positive impacts on students’ engagement in the coursework and career preparedness. It can also decrease the amount of time that students take to earn their degree, which helps lower their student debt and increases their overall earning potential and career trajectory. These are some of the reasons The University of Texas at Austin has made graduating within four years one of its top priorities for undergraduates.

But deciding on a career early within the college journey can be a bit like building a road while walking on it. Students may not have the time or support to translate their interests into a viable career option.

Head shot of and portrait of Dr. Chris McCarthy in the Department of Educational Psychology. My research focuses on three distinct lines of inquiry in stress and coping: (a) wellness and health psychology, (b) identification of psychological resources that can help prevent stress, and (c) extending basic research on stress and coping to educational settings, particularly in understanding the stress that educators and counselors experience.

Christopher McCarthy

One way to help ensure a speedy graduation rate is to have a well-thought out career plan, says Christopher McCarthy, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology. McCarthy teaches Introduction to Career Planning, a course that helps students map their future and get the most out of their degree. In the class, McCarthy walks students through the process, looking at the lifespan of a career, as opposed to simply focusing on finding a job out of college.

In addition to looking at the potential career’s lifespan, McCarthy emphasizes the importance of social resourcefulness as a way to manage stress throughout a career. “It’s essential that students to learn how to successfully cope with stress early on. Students need to be comfortable asking for feedback, talking about stress, and managing the natural loss/gain of jobs,” says McCarthy.

The class also incorporates social aspects into the process. Students evaluate how attributes such as their personality, values, ethnicity, and gender can help shape their career outcome. This process can help them narrow their options when choosing a major, which can often be overwhelming at larger universities.

McCarthy emphasizes two points to undergraduates who may be unsure about their career path:

  1. Find ways to test out aspects of a career to see what type of work you like to do. This could be anything from finding out if you like working indoors or outdoors, your preferred work-life balance, or if you would like to work for a nonprofit or private company. Even if you’re not doing the type of work you want, you can gauge how you might like the environment you will be working in.
  2. Explore ways to be a part of a professional community. Building connections within your field can be one of the most important steps in your career development. Interacting with people who are passionate about their work and having organic conversations with them can lead to opportunities that you may not have known existed.

Introduction to Career Planning is open to all undergraduates at Texas. Currently, students from several majors and years are enrolled in the course. The course is a hybrid course, consisting of in-person and interactive online assignments.

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 300 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

The 300th certification belongs to Sandra Sexton, a teacher at Utopia ISD who teaches algebra, calculus, graphic design, computer science, and web design. 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.

Mural by Raul Valdez, c. 1978 at the Pan American Recreation Center at Zavala Elementary, in Austin, Texas.

Recent research has found that students who participate in ethnic studies classes show improved academic performance and a higher attendance rate. Students benefit from seeing their culture and ethnic backgrounds represented in the classroom, and studies suggest that the relevant subject matter encourages students to be more engaged in the coursework.

However, courses of this type have been met with resistance. For example, in Tucson, a Mexican-American studies course was banned in 2010 due to claims that it caused divisiveness among students of different ethnicities.

Evidence is lacking for those claims, though, says Educational Administration Professor Angela Valenzuela. “Although perhaps counterintuitive for some at first glance, the opposite is actually true,” she said. In fact, research overwhelmingly supports the finding that studying other cultures actually promotes understanding and cohesiveness among students and teachers.

Recently, Valenzuela testified in a precedent-setting legal struggle, Acosta et al. v. Huppenthal, et al. in the Tucson Unified School District. The case battled and helped overturn policies that eliminated teachers’, students’, and the community’s dreams for what turned out to be a short-lived Mexican American Studies program.

Photo of Angela Valenzuela

Angela Valenzuela

And though Arizona’s hopes for ethnic studies courses were dashed, Texas schools are now taking steps to incorporate those courses into the curriculum for 11th and 12th grade students, thanks to advocacy from concerned groups and individuals such as Valenzuela. In fact, six high schools in the Austin Independent School District (AISD) will offer ethnic studies courses by fall 2017. The goal is to have all high schools in AISD offering ethnic studies by fall of 2018. A statewide course also has been approved by the State Board of Education and could be implemented by the state legislature by 2023-25.

The first course, which will focus on ethnic studies through literature, can be counted towards graduation as an English III or English IV requirement. Having the class count toward graduation, as opposed to an elective, is important, as it can aid students’ progress toward graduating on time, and it offers a greater incentive to participate.

According to Valenzuela, teaching diverse students about their cultures in social, political, and economic contexts helps them to feel a part of the grand American narrative where their ancestors made important contributions to society and history. Seeing how their culture contributed to the development of America boosts ethnic students’ academic self-identity and confidence.

To learn more from Valenzuela about the value of ethnic studies courses, view her EdTalk.

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North Cooc photo

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ESL in Guatemala study abroad

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Juarez Girls Rising book cover

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Photo of Toni Falbo and graduate student Sophia Y. Hooper

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