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.
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.”
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.