Published April 19, 2021
To expand access to computer science courses in K-12 schools, the Graduate School of Education is developing a professional computer science certification that aims to introduce teachers of other subjects to computer science.
The certification, submitted to SUNY as a proposal, would integrate computer science as a subject in all K-12 schools in New York. The initiative is led by Chris Proctor, assistant professor of learning and instruction; Beth Etopio, assistant dean for teacher education; Erin Kearney, associate professor of learning and instruction; and Anne Izydorczak, administrator of the Gifted Math Program.
It will help tenured teachers from other subjects, such as math or business, switch to the computer science (CS) discipline, allowing for an easier transition compared with returning to school to earn a computer science degree.
“This is a very difficult chicken and egg problem,” Proctor says. “Schools can’t offer CS courses without CS teachers, but it is hard to recruit CS teachers until there are open positions.”
The certification program will focus on three main strands: content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, and leadership. Teachers will learn basic CS content, how to effectively teach and tailor the CS material to individual students, and how to lead students outside of the classroom.
“In thinking about leadership, we are recognizing that CS is not just something learned for an hour during the school day,” says Proctor. “It is connected to much broader structures of opportunity and oppression.”
Creation of the teacher preparation program is paramount to advancing computer science in K-12 schools, he explains, as it would provide students with a plethora of opportunities.
“The most loudly spoken reason is because of economic opportunity and being able to get good jobs,” he says. “That’s something to take seriously.”
Although Proctor believes the economic-opportunity aspect is important, he says it may not be the most significant.
“K-12 education has a civic and participatory mission of preparing people to participate in a democratic society,” he says. “If you want to have a citizenry that is capable of participating in democracy, you need to have widespread literacy so they can find out what’s going on, and so they can organize and communicate.”
Print communication is quickly being phased out in the 21st century, as major news outlets and public services move to online platforms. As a result, Proctor says, many people face two crucial barriers to participation: access to a computer and internet, and computational literacy.
He says the most immediate example of these barriers regards COVID-19 vaccination. “There’s been a huge and fair outcry about the equity of vaccination. It’s a life-or-death issue of being able to get access to vaccines,” he says. “People who know how to use computers can access vaccines more easily.”
Becoming computer literate at a young age will also help youth tackle immediate issues many face today in their online lives, among them privacy and online safety, as well as deeper questions around who they want to be and what kind of world they want to live in.
“Individuals ask themselves daily why they’re being represented in this way, why is this news being fed to me and not other news,” says Proctor. “They should know the language to be able to critique that. Computers are a partner in thought. There’s a lot of beauty and many possibilities that computers unlock.”
Before these issues can be addressed, however, Proctor says a more prominent problem has to be solved: the stereotypes around computer science that keep students from enrolling in classes.
Mainstream computer science “is an incredibly sexist and racist field,” he says, noting the industry is driven by wealthy white males, which creates a narrow picture of what computer science is and who belongs. He adds that many students believe computer science is something “only the real smart kids are ready to handle.”
“I used to teach at an all-girls middle school where computer science was a required course for everyone all the way through,” he says. “Some brilliant students went on to high schools with unsupportive CS cultures, had negative interactions with boys, and said they never wanted to do computer science ever again.”
Proctor and his colleagues want to ensure everyone has a chance to take part in, understand and help shape society’s digital future. He says he hopes the proposed UB program will help students throughout New York access computing cultures where they can connect the powerful ideas of computing to their own lives.