Walk into my classroom at PSJA Southwest on a given day and you will see my students tackling difficult problems, solving puzzles, and learning how to formalize their learning into a code that a computer can read.
Computer Science does not always look how one might expect; a group of students sitting behind a computer screen. More often than not, students are using manipulatives to develop formulas, playing countless rounds of tick tack toe to figure out strategies, and writing sets of precise directions.
Curiosity and problem solving make up the set of skills that employers are looking for in today’s hiring world. A computer is a tool, but it is the knowledge and know-how of the programmer behind the tool that make it so powerful.
As a 2016 Teach For America corps member, when I was presented with the opportunity to be part of a fellowship aimed at increasing access to Computer Science education in the Rio Grande Valley, I jumped. Computer Science is a field that I have immense interest because of its ability to impact society at every level. Technology is changing the way that we run our everyday lives, and soon being able to run and program a computer is going to be fundamental for jobs in every sector.
I teach a course titled Exploring Computer Science at the high school level in Pharr. I have nine brilliant, creative students enrolled who are learning and tackling problems each day. And I am learning with them. My background in CS is limited primarily to what I have played with online, learning the basics of Java and Python, as well as a summer course funded by TFA through a grant they received to train teachers in Computer Science. I tell my students that I am learning with them, and so far we have had fun on the adventure. This ability to learn as you go is part of the beauty of CS. You CAN learn so much of it on your own. I hope that each day I am modeling for my students what it is like to be a lifelong learner, and to not be afraid to tell them “hmmm, I’m not sure. Let’s figure it out!”.
Our schools are striving to fill a gap in CS education. Districts in the Valley struggle to recruit and retain qualified teachers of all subjects, let alone those that hold a valued computer science degree and who can seek employment elsewhere at considerably higher pay. There are currently 500,000 jobs available in computing, and these jobs are projected to grow at twice the rate of other jobs. The push is for careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), however in reality 71 percent of those jobs are in computing and computer science. Teach For America’s Computer Science Fellowship program is one strategic effort towards nurturing interest and skills in this important field among the Valley’s students.
Exploring Computer Science is an intro level course that allows students to pursue higher-level CS courses in the area that most appeals to them. We broadly cover Computer Human Interaction, Problem Solving, Web Design, Programming, Robotics, and Data analysis. Offering Exploring Computer Science is one step my district has taken to increase participation in Computer Science courses. Additionally, they are exploring pathways to embed more programming into technology courses, and are offering a program for teachers to earn a master’s in Computer Security. Unfortunately, my district must prioritize state test scores in “core” subjects, leaving less time to develop a strong CS program. Eventually my district aims to increase exposure for students to CS in middle school, which can help build a pathway into a robust high school CS program; however, the path forward is a slow process.
Until those efforts come to fruition, for most of my current students this may be the end of their CS education in high school. While my district has web app and information technology courses, they do not currently offer any more advanced programming based Computer Science courses to expand on their learning. The difference is in learning how to use software such as Microsoft Word and Excel, and how to create this software. Computer Science as a discipline focuses as much on the problem solving skills necessary to create strong software as it does on the how of programming a computer. It is my hope that districts like mine will continue to seek out private partnerships and public funding in order to prepare students for the technology opportunities that our changing society offers.
In the meantime, I try to help my students become self-learners, so they can pursue their education in CS on their own through the many different sites and programs available online. Organizations such as Teach For America, Club Code UTRGV, Border Kids Code, Code RGV, FIRST in Texas U.I.L. robotics, Nerdvana, and Sylvan Learning have taken the lead at implementing programs that can help our students develop the advanced skills required to compete in a global marketplace. As an educator, the brilliance and potential of my computer science students is something I see and encourage. The first week of December is Computer Science Education Week, and it’s a prime opportunity for district and community leaders, parents and corporate citizens to reflect on how they can help us grow talent in this region.