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Carol Fletcher Changemaker Portrait

Carol Fletcher

Deputy Director of the Center for STEM Education

Carol Fletcher leads WeTeach_CS, a program that has prepared nearly 400 educators across Texas to become certified to teach computer science in K-12 classrooms. Fletcher’s advocacy for STEM education across the state and nation has furthered collaboration among educators, government leaders, and the high-tech industry. A former middle science teacher, Fletcher is deputy director of the Center for STEM Education. She earned her Ph.D. in science education from Texas and has served on the board of trustees for Pflugerville ISD since 2001.

 

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.

Pencil and BatteryKids are innately and passionately curious. How can teachers of STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—reframe their classrooms to fuel that passion?

The College of Education’s Center for STEM Education is recognized nationally for its research and classroom teaching. Its faculty and staff know that cultivating a passion for discovery produces lifelong learners. Center Director Victor Sampson is in his second year as the center’s director. An associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and the Elizabeth Glenadine Gibb Teaching Fellow in Mathematics Education, Sampson talks about the current state of STEM instruction and opportunities for the future.

How Can Teachers Improve STEM Education?

Victor Sampson has identified five ways we can change the way classroom teachers interact with students.

1. Create an environment where everyone is teaching and learning.

This is more than semantics. It is one of the fundamental problems with how we think about schools. Teaching and learning co-occur. If we remove the dichotomy of teaching and learning, we can recognize that students can also teach each other.

Students can teach the teacher. In my own teaching experience, for example, I would often ask a student to help when I had a problem with technology. The student taught me the solution. An effective learning environment supports all of these relationships.

2. Encourage students to investigate questions in their own way.

Students should have more voice and choice in STEM subjects. I advocate an approach where a teacher poses a scientific question to students in middle or high school, such as, “How is the strength of an electromagnet affected by the number of turns of wire?” Students have to design an investigation to answer the question, collect and analyze data, and support an answer with evidence.

It’s OK for students to fail at first. When an experiment doesn’t go the way you thought it would, it’s a wonderful opportunity for students to learn.

3. Let students follow their unique interests.

Students should explore topics that are meaningful to them. Meaningful topics are those that students themselves are curious about: Are genetically modified foods safe to eat? How do I contribute to climate change? What does it mean that my neighborhood is a “food desert” and why does that matter?

These require scientific and mathematical knowledge to answer. Furthermore, they are open-ended, in that an answer to \ one part of the question inevitably leads to another question.

4. Encourage collaborative learning across disciplines.

STEM fields are no longer isolated from each other. Breakthroughs are often the result of collaboration. As but one example, the paper reporting on the first discovery of gravitational waves has more than 100 authors. STEM is a social endeavor, and we should represent that to students as they carry out investigations. Ideally, students should see themselves as part of a community of learners and scientists, engineers or mathematicians.

5. Assess, Assess, Assess.

What works? What doesn’t? Assessment provides invaluable guidance.

Interview with Victor Sampson – Director of the Center for STEM Education at the College of Education.

Our good work with schools and teachers opens doors for us to create and pilot innovative curricula and then conduct research on students' learning using that curricula

How has teaching science and math changed in the last 50 years?

In many ways it hasn’t. In a lot of classrooms, students still sit at a desk, listen to the teacher and take notes. Then they’ll be asked to read a chapter and answer questions about it. They are consumers of knowledge rather than creators of it.

It’s the same with math. Students watch a teacher do math problems and then work on their own problems. Lost is the responsibility of students to engage with deeper principles. In other words, students are not held responsible for negotiating meaning in these situations.

How is the Center for STEM Education’s research translated into strategies for teachers?

The center includes a professional network of teachers called the Texas Regional Collaboratives (TRC). The TRC has grown to reach more than 10,000 teachers across Texas annually. More than 60 of these collaboratives are set up across the state and enable us to move ideas quickly to teachers.

We attend state and national conferences for educators. Center faculty have presented our work at the National Science Teachers Association annual conference, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics annual meeting, and the Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching.

I have presented at the Texas Education Leadership Association annual meeting, another important avenue not only for disseminating our work, but also for improving STEM education. If we want to improve STEM education, we need to work with school boards, superintendents, principals, and educators.

When teachers use the center’s strategies, how do outcomes change?

Learning increases in science and math. We have evidence they also make gains in other subjects. For example, students who learn through the argument-driven inquiry (ADI) approach I developed with collaborators show significant gains in science proficiency.

What is Argument-Driven Inquiry?

Argument-Driven Inquiry (ADI) is an innovative approach to laboratory instruction based on current research about how people learn science, and includes recommendations for making lab activities more meaningful. ADI helps students learn how to participate in the practices of science, and use core ideas and crosscutting concepts of science to make sense of natural phenomena. ADI gives students an opportunity to learn how to read, write and speak in the context of science. Current research indicates that when teachers incorporate ADI into the science curriculum, all students—including those who tend to be at a disadvantage in traditional science classrooms— make substantial gains in inquiry skills, understanding content, and the ability to write in a scientific manner. It has the potential to make science classrooms more equitable and more effective.

Why is the Center for STEM Education important?

We are a hub for all parties interested in improving STEM education: teachers, schools, districts, policy makers, state educational leaders, and private industries relying on a STEM knowledge base.

We research STEM teaching and learning, evaluate other programs designed to improve STEM education, provide professional development for educators, and then share findings from these activities so that others benefit from our work.

We collaborate across the UT campus and are currently working on projects with faculty in engineering, computer science, and psychology, to name a few.

Richard Crawford, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, is working with Stephanie Rivale, Todd Hutner and me on a project recently funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). We are investigating a promising approach to integrating engineering into science classes. We want to create a curricular framework to help students learn science content, scientific practices, and engineering practices at the same time.

Catherine Riegle-Crumb, associate director for STEM education research in the center, works with Chandra Muller, a professor in the Department of Sociology. The NSF is funding their research on ways to increase the number and diversity of undergraduate students entering and completing STEM majors. This is important research, and I am very excited to see the results of their project.

We are also a national leader in STEM education. For example, Dr. Riegle-Crumb just finished a two-year term as president of the Sociology of Education Association. I’m an associate editor of the Journal of Research Science Teaching, the leading journal in science education. Carol Fletcher, who is our deputy director, works with people across the U.S. on ways to increase the number of computer science teachers in schools. These are indicative of the respect that the broader STEM education community has for the work we do.

What’s your next challenge?

We are very much focused on the need to improve computer science education.

We need to provide professional development to current teachers in both the content and pedagogy of computer science. We are well-positioned to meet the needs of the teaching force in Texas, thanks to Dr. Fletcher, who oversees these efforts. The center has gained a reputation for the high-quality professional development we provide.

Personally, I’m focused on changing the nature of STEM learning environments for students for whom English is a second-language. This is particularly important in Texas. There is a shortage of STEM teachers who speak a language other than English, and this tends to result in learning environments that are not very equitable or inclusive.

I am working on a grant with Rebecca Callahan, an associate professor of bilingual/bicultural education in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, to study ways science teachers can use the ADI approach. We want to help teachers provide a more language-rich learning environment for emerging multilingual students so these students can learn science at the same time they are developing skills in reading, writing, and English.

We have to find ways to improve teaching and learning in STEM with respect to the language needs of our students. 

Associate Professor Jill Marshall, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, discusses “stereotype threat’s” effect on student outcomes, the importance of helping students develop visual-spatial skills, and how reframing the teaching of math and science using project-based approaches can help engage underrepresented students.

Educational Psychology Professor Kevin Cokley explains how “imposter syndrome” can affect underrepresented students in STEM classes and what educators can do to help ward off its negative effects.

Associate Professor and Director of the Center for STEM Education Victor Sampson discusses how science teachers can modify how they teach to better engage every student in learning scientific methods and retaining content.

High school teachers and students are learning to program side by side, thanks to a collaboration between the Center for STEM Education and STEMed Labs.

Suzette, a Manor New Technology High School freshman, hunches over her tiny breadboard, which is a base for prototyping electronics, and an LED strip. Both are connected to a keyboard, mouse, and monitor. She’s engrossed in her efforts to program circuits and control the small LED.

“If you program the LED to blink 60 times in the span of a minute, the blinks will be too quick for the eye to register,” says the STEMed Lab instructor. “Instead of appearing as a blinking light,” he explains, “it will simply appear dim.”

A student works on a circuit board while another looks on.The students take in this information and continue their work.

The 20 or so high schoolers in the STEMed Labs Pi Bytes class have invested four consecutive Saturday afternoons this semester to learn how to program on the Raspberry Pi platform from a team of engineers and computer scientists. Says Suzette, “I want to learn new things and see what I’m interested in and if I might want to do this as a career.”

The students come from public and private schools in the Austin and surrounding areas. Joining them in their studies are a handful of teachers from the region, each of them scattered about the room observing, taking notes, and asking questions.

The teachers are participating in the workshop thanks to Dr. Carol Fletcher, deputy director of the UT College of Education’s Center for STEM Education. Last year, Fletcher met Ripal Nathuji, co-founder and president of STEMed Labs, the nonprofit that created Pi Bytes. When she heard about the classes, she immediately recognized an ideal professional development opportunity for teachers who were interested in furthering their computer science teaching skills.

According to Fletcher, although teachers who participate in the STEM center’s TeachCS “boot camp” receive computer science training that helps them successfully earn certification in the area, “it is unusual for the teachers to have the chance to work directly with students during their training. Also, the investment we make in a student camp pays out exponentially when you include teachers who can scale up the number of students who can be reached far beyond the camp experience.”

One student helps another at a computerSays Nathuji, “This collaboration is a perfect intersection for creating opportunities for teachers and for our small organization to spread the knowledge and implementation of our program throughout schools.”

James Casselman graduated from the UTeach Natural Sciences program seven years ago after deciding to make a career change from hardware sales and marketing to something he found more meaningful. He now teaches life sciences at Taylor High School, about 35 miles northeast of Austin. “I teach anatomy and physiology and aquatic science, but I try to roll in raw html and Code.org’s one hour of code a week into my classes as well,” he says. Casselman participated in the workshop because he “wanted to learn how to do more. I want to teach my students not to just be consumers of technology, but creators. This is the industry.”

Similarly, Margarita Flores-Sicich, engineering teacher at St. Dominic Savio Catholic High School in Round Rock, wanted to learn more for the benefit of her students. “I’m familiar with some of this because I teach engineering,” she says, “but I’ll have to incorporate Raspberry Pi into my curriculum in two months. It’s really cool to have the chance to see how these experts teach it and to see the problems the students encounter. It will help me be more prepared.”

Flores-Sicich, who was a first-generation college student and worked as a chemical engineer before becoming a teacher, added that she has a passion for science and engineering that she wants to pass on to her students. “I loved science as a young student, but engineering wasn’t even a word that I’d been exposed to. Somehow I discovered the word that led to my career, and now I get to expose my students to this subject.” She says that her school currently offers two years of computer science classes and is aiming for four.

Says Fletcher, “The Center for STEM Education seeks to be the leader for computer science education in Texas and in the nation. Our partnership with STEMed Labs is one way that we provide relevant, real-time education for computer science teachers in Texas.”

To learn more about The Center for STEM Education, visit the center’s website.

-Slideshow by Christina S. Murrey

WeTeachCS Mixer

On Feb. 3, 2016, the Center for STEM Education played host to over 120 computer science (CS) educators at the Google Fiber Space in downtown Austin. Held during Texas Computer Education Association’s Annual Convention and Exposition, the WeTeachCS Mixer provided an opportunity for CS educators from across Texas to network, share ideas, and begin building a statewide professional learning community. This opportunity to connect with the larger CS education community is vital because there are relatively few CS teachers compared to other STEM fields.

For more information about the event, visit the Center for STEM Education website.

 

Inaugural Building Bridges Event Links Researchers and K-12 Teachers

On Jan. 20, 2016, the Center for STEM Education hosted its first specialized networking event, Building Bridges: Creating Partnerships and Closing the Gap Between Research and Practice, funded by a grant from the 100Kin10 organization. The meeting’s goal was to begin bridging the gap between UT Austin STEM faculty and researchers, and local K-12 educators. With both communities excited about this new initiative, over 60 researchers and educators attended the early morning event.

“We are focusing on more collaboration within the College of Education and across the university, with the goal of functioning like a hub,” explained Associate Professor Victor Sampson, the center’s new director. “We are looking out into the community and sitting down with them from the outset in order to collaborate around problems and provide research that is more inclusive and responsive to them.”

For more information about the event, visit the College of Education website.