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Guest Column
At UF, we are working together to provide Florida teachers and students with computer science skills | Column
School districts do not have enough teachers with knowledge of the basics of computer science.
LARA CERRI   |  Times
A student does a reading lesson on his computer at Blanton Elementary School in St. Petersburg. Not all students in Florida have easy access to computers and the training they will need to use them as fully as necessary in the future.
LARA CERRI | Times A student does a reading lesson on his computer at Blanton Elementary School in St. Petersburg. Not all students in Florida have easy access to computers and the training they will need to use them as fully as necessary in the future. [ Times (2015) ]
Published Nov. 26, 2021

In a world driven by technological innovation, we should be teaching all young learners computer skills from the earliest grades.

In fact, Florida HB 495, enacted in 2018, requires all middle and high schools to provide computer science courses. It would seem, then, that all Florida students would have the same opportunity to learn computer science. But many school districts struggle to offer computer science education, especially rural districts and those serving less-affluent students.

Why? Simply put, school districts do not have enough teachers with knowledge of the basics of computer science.

Maya Israel
Maya Israel [ Provided ]

This shortage is such a major issue that it was called out in the recently released Action to Catalyze Tech (ACT) Report published by Catalyze Tech, an initiative that aligns over 30 of the major players in the tech industry — including Snap and Google. The report is centered around issues of diversity, equity and inclusion and links that industry-wide problem to an urgent need to improve access to computer science education in public schools. It describes the national shortage of skilled teachers as “critical” and the quality of course offerings as “patchy.”

This problem is a “high leverage point,” according to the report, for the tech industry, philanthropists and governments to join forces — and there is great news on that front for Florida.

Catalyze Tech is working with CSforAll, a nonprofit organization, to encourage financial investments in computer science teacher preparation that ensures teachers have the skills to work with students from diverse cultures, abilities, socioeconomic backgrounds and geographic regions through a new CSforED initiative. CSforAll’s mission is to make high-quality computer science education an integral part of the educational experience of all K-12 students. To date, $20 million has been raised for this effort.

That includes $5 million for the University of Florida’s College of Education from Citadel Founder and CEO Ken Griffin. The new Kenneth C. Griffin Computer Science Education for All Initiative will allow us to develop innovative ways of including computer science in teacher preparation. This investment brings together researchers and teacher educators at UF and computer science education leaders from across the state to develop a coordinated vision for computer science teacher preparation. These efforts will include:

  • an online community of practice where new teachers from throughout Florida can learn together;
  • instructional materials that can be used across teacher education programs; and
  • exam preparation resources for teachers who choose to take the Florida Teacher Certification Examination in K-12 computer science so they can become certified to teach this subject.
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Our experience has shown us that teachers often have misconceptions about what computer science is, who can do computer science and who can become a computer scientist. A major focus of the Kenneth C. Griffin Computer Science Education for All Initiative is helping teachers see themselves and their students as people who can do computer science.

Many companies recognize that a more diverse workforce makes good business sense. Companies that are made up of people that reflect their customers develop products that have a broader appeal. And a diverse tech workforce begins with young learners seeing themselves within these career pathways. Without teachers providing these experiences, we will continue to struggle to attract young women, students with disabilities and students from a wide range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds into computer science majors and tech fields. Therefore, teacher preparation is a key piece of the solution.

To address the need for computer science education, school districts currently are offering professional development sessions that teachers attend after school hours, on weekends or during the summer. Many of these offerings are excellent because they address the needs of current teachers who want to learn how to teach computer science. Yet, participating in computer science professional learning in these ways is not ideal for many working adults, who must spend their evenings, weekends and/or summers retooling. It would be far better if K-12 teachers graduated from universities with skills needed to teach computer science, which this new initiative will help accomplish.

It also will help us highlight the fact that computer science skills are useful across a wide range of careers, including those not traditionally associated with technology such as the arts. Ultimately, if we are serious about broadening and making the field of computer science more inclusive, we need to start with well-prepared teachers who believe that all students deserve access to the opportunities presented by computer science education.

Maya Israel is an associate professor of educational technology and computer science education and director of the Creative Technology Research Lab at the University of Florida.