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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.

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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