Mercer advances computer science education in rural Georgia

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a man shows a young girl something on a computer
Andrew Harvey, a computer science Master Teacher Fellow and engineering and mechanics instructor for Dublin City Schools, works with a student in a third grade STEM class at the Irish Gifted Academy. Photo by Leah Yetter

In an attempt to accelerate K-12 computer science education in a state where it’s exceedingly rare, in 2019 the Georgia Legislature passed a law mandating all high schools in the state must teach computer science by 2024. The bill was a direct response to the immense demand for technology talent in the private sector.

the words ideas that deliver inside a circle

Preparing effective computer science education can take time and, of course, money. That’s where a team from Mercer University’s College of Education, Department of Computer Science and School of Engineering came up with a plan.

“We needed to make a difference, and this is a way we could do it,” said Dr. Thomas Koballa, dean of the College of Education. He serves as principal investigator on a five-year National Science Foundation grant that aims to develop highly effective computer science teacher-leaders who are prepared, specifically, to help rural school systems provide high-quality instruction for all students.

Fewer than 20% of middle and high school students enrolled in computer science courses during the 2020-21 school year were in rural school systems, according to Georgia Department of Education data. Additionally, of the 309 certified computer science teachers, only 86 taught in rural schools.

“The legislation was requiring all schools to include computer science in their curriculum,” Dr. Koballa said. “In metro school systems like Gwinnett (County), they have more computer science teachers than you can imagine. But in these (rural) school systems that we’re working with, it was just a dream for some of them.”

four children work on a computer
Students in a third grade STEM class at the Irish Gifted Academy. Photo by Leah Yetter

Initiative focuses on 8 partner districts

The nearly $1.5 million grant is administered through the NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education and Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program. It focuses on rural, high-need school districts in Clinch, Coffee, Evans, Jeff Davis, Tattnall, Treutlen and Wheeler counties, as well as Dublin City Schools.

Dr. Koballa’s team includes co-principal investigators Dr. Susie Morrissey, assistant professor of mathematics education in the College of Education; Dr. Bob Allen, professor and chair of computer science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; and Dr. Anthony Choi, professor of electrical and computer engineering in the School of Engineering.

Consistent with Mercer’s ongoing efforts to not only transform communities but also create new models, the team knew they had to start with the teachers.

They worked with school administrators to recruit 16 certified computer science Master Teacher Fellows, including middle or high school teachers from each of the eight partner districts. The Master Teacher Fellows received tuition and a stipend to complete a 14-month online Educational Specialist (Ed.S.) in Teacher Leadership degree program that included computer science and instructional coaching endorsements. That was followed by online computer science mini-courses and in-person computer science leadership assemblies. The pair of teachers from each of the eight school districts are now constructing computer science system-level planning to guide computer science education in grades K-12. 

“As professors at a university, how many students can we directly touch? Very few,” said Dr. Choi. “But if we can actually help the teachers that are currently in those rural areas to become master computer science teachers, then be trained to a level where they are going to cultivate not only their own students but other teachers to become technologically advanced, that’s the main goal of this project.”

Dr. Koballa estimates that by educating 16 teachers, the project will impact more than 1,500 rural students. Nearly two years after Mercer’s College of Education received the grant to develop computer science master teachers for schools in rural Georgia, grant leaders are starting to see success.

“The knowledge base and experience gained through my specialist program at Mercer has been huge in learning from some of the brightest minds currently in education.”

Andrew Harvey, Master Teacher Fellow

Paige Denmark has spent the last eight years at Clinch County Elementary-Middle School as a sixth grade science teacher, a K-7 gifted resource and 4-7 STEM teacher. She’s one of the 16 Master Teacher Fellows participating in the project and said this partnership has not only enriched her teaching experience but created a platform for driving positive change in the community.

“Teaching students and guiding them to discover the significance of computer science in their everyday lives, as well as its potential in shaping their future career pathways, is a driving force behind my involvement in the NSF grant,” she said.

Master Teacher Fellow Andrew Harvey has been an educator for 15 years and currently teaches elementary STEAM, middle grades engineering, eighth grade science and high school mechatronics for Dublin City Schools. He said the NSF grant enabled him to work at the district level to expand computer science education across his district and build teacher capacity.

“This network has helped to collaboratively solve common issues, share ideas and help create solutions for our districts,” he said. “The knowledge base and experience gained through my specialist program at Mercer has been huge in learning from some of the brightest minds currently in education.”

Students respond well to curriculum

Harvey added that his students have responded well to the revamped curriculum and lessons and have shown great aptitude for computer science.

“It’s tempting, because we’re an agricultural community, to think that technology isn’t really being used,” he explained. “But if you work with any farmer around, you’d be amazed how much technology they use every day, from their ground monitoring systems to the satellite systems that work with their tractors, the plows, even sprayer drones, everything. But people don’t realize that, so the same opportunities are usually not given to rural districts.”

Two years into the five-year grant, the project boasts a 100% retention rate. All 16 of the teachers who initially joined have remained with the program.

“It was a tremendous amount of effort, tremendous amount of dedication that the fellows brought to the table,” Dr. Choi said. “They had to navigate through these courses that were all taught at night, while still teaching their regular classes. I think that’s what made this so successful. We could not have done it without their dedication to what we were trying to do.”

The project also includes partnerships with Wiregrass Georgia Technical College and the Computer Science for Georgia Academic Partners Network. Nonprofit partners that will provide the Master Teacher Fellows with career-focused computer science links within rural communities include Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center, University of Georgia Agricultural Extension Service and the Software Engineering Group at Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex.

two young students watch a toy rat go through a maze
Students in a third grade STEM class at the Irish Gifted Academy. Photo by Leah Yetter

Dr. Morris Leis, superintendent of Coffee County Schools, said his district is thankful to Mercer for this opportunity, and he believes computer science is a pathway that can lead to careers for many of his students.

“The opportunities in Georgia have never been greater with a growing economy and the economic development across our state,” he said. “Our students must be prepared in the area of computer science, and this grant will create capacity in our classrooms. This grant will allow us to grow our own computer science instructors and will pay dividends for years to come.”

A report recently released by Code.org, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding access to computer science, stated “the number of students taking computer science education courses continues to rise at just a modest pace, and stubborn gaps in access to courses persist.”

Dr. Koballa described this project as a homegrown approach but said there already have been discussions about how to expand it in the future.

“What we’ll be attempting to do is use the teachers and the momentum that we have to develop pathways in the school systems to address the continuing need for computer science teachers,” he said.

All stakeholders agreed expanding computer science education in schools is critical for preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s careers. And developing highly effective computer science teacher-leaders who are prepared to help rural school systems provide high-quality instruction is key.

Thanks to a team of solution-focused educators who saw a need and a way to help, more than 1,500 rural Georgia students are closer than they’ve ever been to a brighter future.

 

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