In 2017, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) added a requirement that school divisions integrate computer science standards into core classes, such as English, math and history. The only problem? School divisions weren't sure how to do it.
Enter The Center for Educational Partnerships (TCEP) at Old Dominion University, which is dedicated to helping educators succeed. In 2019, TCEP staff won a VDOE-sponsored competition to design training for teachers to help students learn about core subjects and build computer skills at the same time.
"Computer science now is such a driving piece of core knowledge within our society," said Melani Loney, TCEP's program manager for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education initiatives. "Students need to be able to make connections, as well."
They came up with two training efforts - Professional development and Regional Opportunities Generating Computer Resources And Microcredentials (PROGRAM), focused on kindergarten through eighth-grade teachers in Hampton Roads, and Advancing Rural Computer Science (ARCS), assisting kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers in rural areas throughout Virginia.
Lesson Planning Across the Region
On June 21, TCEP will host a mini conference for PROGRAM participants at Brooks Crossing Innovation and Opportunity Center in Newport News that will include sessions highlighting the lesson plans they've designed and showcasing computer science classroom materials. PROGRAM will conclude this year.
PROGRAM, focused on Hampton Roads educators, required a three-year commitment. Through CodeVA training sessions, teachers learned how to use unplugged computer science activities that don't require a computer and coding programs like Scratch.
PROGRAM was funded through a VDOE Advancing Computer Science Education Grant and includes Newport News, Isle of Wight, Hampton, Portsmouth and Chesapeake schools. Teachers in PROGRAM received stipends for trainings and to purchase robotics for their classrooms.
Adrienne Sawyer, supervisor of elementary science for Chesapeake Schools, said PROGRAM opened her eyes about what students were capable of learning.
"Our teachers said Python programming is hard, and how would we ever do this in elementary school? But the kids are doing it! They can go further than basic block programming," she said. "Without PROGRAM, I would have never even thought of doing Python in elementary school."
She's worked with teachers to integrate computer science standards into data collection for science projects, inviting students to graph force and motion using robots. "One little boy reprogrammed his bot to come back to him while everyone else would get up to go get theirs," Sawyer said.
While it's been gratifying to see the teachers' confidence grow, Sawyer is also excited to have established partnerships with her counterparts in other school divisions. "Now we have partnerships across Hampton Roads, and we have contacts to share information and data," she said. "We're going to work together to continue this collaboration so that the collection of lesson plans continues to grow."
Reaching Rural Classrooms
Meanwhile, ARCS aims to serve 440 teachers over its five-year grant period, impacting approximately 18,000 students who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, ARCS collaborates with VDOE and CodeVA to train teachers and help them acquire computer science microcredentials. ARCS will begin recruiting its second cohort this fall.
For TCEP staff, it's exciting to demystify what can feel like a daunting process. "This is making sure TCEP is helping school divisions be on the cutting edge of education for the students, and that's really what we're missioned to do," said Joanna Garner, executive director of TCEP. Their digital microcredentials, she said, "are a packet of competencies they can communicate" and apply toward recertification.
The program is designed to multiply the training, causing a ripple effect through their schools. Participants gain skills from CodeVA to prepare them to act as coaches, sharing what they've learned with other teachers in their schools. This builds capacity to teach computer science.
ARCS also developed instructional materials with integration ideas. This ranged from using "unplugged" activities, including robot toys, to learn programming to teaching the programming concept of "looping" by utilizing the repeating rhythms of nursery rhymes.
For Susan Elliott, an instructional technology resource teacher at two elementary schools in Halifax County, ARCS "takes some of the fear out" of teaching computer science.
"It broke it down to make you see it was not as intimidating as you would think," she said. "Except for the occasional professional development, I haven't had any specific computer science training. I felt like I was just scratching the surface and I thought this was going to help me dig in a little deeper."
Now, she's been able to push some of the concepts into classrooms, helping teachers come up with ideas like using a Fisher Price Code-a-Pillar robot to align with reading "A Very Hungry Caterpillar," challenging students to code the robot's movements. At the same time, she's earned the microcredentials that signify she is a trained computer science educator.
The program operates on a hybrid schedule of synchronous and asynchronous classes, allowing the educators to share ideas, while earning microcredentials on their own time.
To ensure equal access regardless of school district resources or limitations of regional broadband, ARCS provided Chromebooks and stipends to participants. In addition, ARCS designed training modules that could be completed with less-than-ideal connectivity.
"I think what excites them is being able to integrate," Loney said. "They just haven't had the time to be educated on the computer science standards at their grade level. It's about understanding computer science education doesn't have to be a standalone class."
To learn more about participating in the second cohort of ARCS, email TCEP@odu.edu.