From computer programs that assist in medical decisions to innovative crop-cultivating techniques to software that analyzes military intelligence, computer science is embedded in a growing number of careers today. Demand is high, and opportunities are plentiful for people with programming skills, making introductory instruction essential for students at younger ages.
The Georgia legislature passed a bill two years ago mandating that all middle and high schools offer computer science courses by the 2024-25 academic year. However, finding teachers with experience in this subject area is a challenge.
A collaborative project between Mercer’s Tift College of Education, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and School of Engineering aims to expand the pool of certified computer science teachers through a new endorsement track and teacher development program.
21st century skills
Dr. Thomas Koballa, dean of the College of Education, pitched the idea for this project soon after coming to Mercer in July 2019 and found immediate support from Dr. Susie Morrissey, assistant professor of education, and Dr. Bob Allen, professor and chair of computer science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Supported by a $124,829 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in spring 2020, the team started a capacity-building project to support computer science teachers. While science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects have been emphasized in curricula for a long time, computer science has not received the same attention, Dr. Koballa said.
“Computer science is 21st century skills,” he said. “More schools are recognizing that and thinking about it as a core area of the curriculum. But many schools and systems in rural Georgia are just not there yet. The equity issue is one we’re attempting to address.”
While school systems in metro areas often have certified faculty teaching computer science, many rural districts don’t have the capacity or manpower, Dr. Koballa said.
It’s not abnormal for a school to ask a teacher with no computer science training to teach courses in the subject, Dr. Allen said. Through workshops, he has provided local teachers with tools and resources to get started, but they always need more training.
“We wanted to talk with teachers and school leaders to find out what they feel needs to be done to support the development of computer science teachers,” Dr. Koballa said. “We needed to find some mechanism to enable teachers to be credentialed in computer science.”
The capability-building project, which took more than a year, led to the development of a three-course Computer Science Master Teacher Endorsement Track and a NSF grant proposal for the implementation of a five-year computer science teacher development program. The team submitted the proposal in August and should learn in December or January if it has been funded.
“Our capacity-building grant was an exploratory grant to find out what rural Georgia schools need to be able to effectively teach computer science,” said Dr. Allen. “We learned a lot, and we put that into our proposal that’s being reviewed right now that’s going to fund many years of us supporting teachers and spreading the good news that computer science is not just for geeks but for everyone.”
The endorsement, developed by Dr. Allen and Dr. Morrissey, will be available in summer 2022 and open to anyone, Dr. Morrissey said. The classes could be taken as part of other degree programs or as a standalone endorsement, Dr. Koballa said.
Dr. Allen, Dr. Morrisey and professor of electrical and computer engineering Dr. Anthony Choi, who joined the team this summer, will teach the endorsement courses.
“I’m hoping that the computer science endorsement continues to be sustainable,” Dr. Morrissey said. “I hope other teachers in the state will see it as a benefit and continue to take the endorsement.”
Teacher development program
The endorsement is embedded in the teacher development program, which will train 16 teachers in eight rural school districts in South Georgia: Clinch, Coffee, Evans, Jeff Davis, Tattnall, Treutlen and Wheeler counties and Dublin City Schools. The idea is to find established educators who are tied to their rural communities and equip them with computer science skills, Dr. Allen said.
The fellows will earn an education specialist degree in teacher leadership with endorsements in computer science and instructional coaching, in addition to being involved in other development activities. They will receive a $10,000 annual stipend, on top of their teaching salary.
“Filling a gap in teacher preparation and workforce development with a variety of partners in South Georgia will allow Mercer to do what we do best — collaborate with others to forward the University vision to change the world, one student at a time,” said Senior Vice President for Enrollment Management Dr. Penny Elkins, whose office is a key supporter in the initiative.
Students in rural areas are often interested in careers in agriculture, health care and the military, so the Mercer team focused on developing community partners in those fields. The Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center, University of Georgia Agricultural Extension Service and the 402nd Software Engineering Group at Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex will provide the fellows with career-focused connections within their communities, Dr. Koballa said.
These partnerships will help the teachers understand how computer science is linked to jobs in the area, and in turn, they can help their students see how programming skills can be applicable to careers they are interested in. In addition, these partners will gain a bigger pool of students to recruit from for jobs.
“We need more computer programmers. When we train more workers in these areas, we will have the intellectual base upon which our future industry will continue to grow and thrive,” Dr. Choi said. “We are trying to bring these (career) opportunities and also leverage untapped potential. We have amazing students in rural schools who have not been exposed to this.”
Another key component of the grant project will be the assessment of the model and its success, Dr. Koballa said. The hope is that the initiative could later be replicated to support computer science advancement in other rural communities.
“What we want to really do is use the proposal time and interaction period to establish something that is going to be ongoing,” Dr. Choi said. “It has to be sustainable. We want to have an impact and lay out sustainable policies and mechanisms, so that each of the school districts are able to continue what they started, so that all future students will benefit.”