LARAMIE — As technology becomes more ingrained with everyday life, skills in computer science are becoming increasingly necessary to compete in the modern world.
After recently receiving $1 million from the National Science Foundation’s CS for All grant, Wyoming’s Schools and Libraries Integration Computer Science in Education program at the University of Wyoming is working to create three years of professional development opportunities for kindergarten-eighth grade teachers as well as public and school librarians.
WySLICE is a way to start working towards achieving a requirement passed by the Wyoming Legislature in the 2018 session. The bill, Senate File 29, mandates computer science to be taught to all Wyoming students by 2022. Still very early in the process of implementing the legislation, the State Board of Education just voted to approve the first teaching standards for the subject in March.
As school districts work to find ways to fulfill the mandate, the WySLICE program is a potential solution. The grant will fund professional development workshops for 150 teachers around the state through the next three years, focusing on encouraging the integration of computer science into their individual subjects.
“What we’re trying to do is basically not change what teachers are doing, but just allow them to see there are some explicit connections that they can make with computer science,” said Mike Borowszak, primary investigator and project lead for WySLICE. “We’re not wanting to create an army of computer scientists, that’s not our objective; really, our objective is to just have exposure.”
The goal, Borowszak said, is to give teachers tools to integrate technology into their preexisting lesson plans – even subjects not traditionally paired with computer science, like English. He said WySLICE values “the experience and the knowledge the teachers come into the room with.”
“We’re trying to avoid this idea that, ‘Oh, I have to teach yet one more thing’ sentiment, because that is not really sustainable, scalable,” he said. “It won’t continue beyond the grant if we were to do something like that.”
To further ease the burden on teachers, Borowszak said up to four professional development opportunities will be offered in each of the different quadrants of the state. They will also have content and curriculum experts to help teachers with lesson plan adjustments and other questions during implementation.
Not a new concept, Borowczak, who also works as an assistant professor of computer science at UW, said a team of University of Wyoming faculty – including Andrea Burrows, associate professor of science education at UW’s College of Education; Adam Myers, associate professor of astronomy and physics with UW’s College of Arts and Sciences; and Lars Kothoff, assistant professor of computer science at the College of Engineering and Applied Science — has been working for years on similar, smaller-scale programs and professional development opportunities. In fact, the group previously proposed a similar initiative over six years ago and it was declined, Borowszak said, “because we were talking about computer science and the vision at the time just said there is no need for CS in classrooms.”
This time, the grant application featured letters of support from former Gov. Matt Mead, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow and 17 others.
Now that they’ve received the grant, Borowszak said he’s excited the funds will give WySLICE a chance to not only reach more teachers but track their progress.
“It wouldn’t have happened without us doing all of this work for the past seven years,” Borowszak said. “It’s basically an extension of that with some very specific research questions that we’re trying to answer.”
Additionally, it’s a way to shape the education system to accurately reflect technology’s rise in our culture. Borowszak noted already more and more items, from smart home technology to smart cars, are run by algorithms and computational mechanisms and the need for computational knowledge for even basic repairs will be in high demand.
“We really are trying to empower anybody and everybody to have access to what we think is going to be a fundamental literacy of our future world,” he said.
Not only do the different departments within UW share the vision and collaborated on the program, but also the Wyoming Department of Education, the Wyoming Professional Teaching Standards Board and the Wyoming State Library System. Borowszak said obtaining the grant was “really a community effort.”
“We are really building something through the partnership,” he said. “It is not about us trying to impose some kind of mandate, we are really trying to build something that leverages the knowledge of many to make something that is really meant to bring everybody up together.”