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December 13, 2014

Educational Program Helps Students Thrive In A Digital World

April Flowers for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

Our world is becoming progressively more and more digital. Our banks are online, our schools are going online, and even our love lives are online. So, how do we prepare our children to live in a world that is dominated by computers?

For 3- to 8-year-old children, there are board games, like Robot Turtles. The game, and the associated eBook, are designed to teach the basic concepts of computer programming with turtles and gems. For school-aged children, The University of Texas at Austin has developed a network of partnerships with Texas school districts to offer college credit to high school computer science students.

The program -- called Project Engage -- increases access to computer science classes in high school; increases college readiness of Texas high school students and tackles the hard problem of the shortage of computer science teachers. Project Engage is especially focused on reaching girls and underrepresented minority students.

Project Engage offers the schools a computer science principles course called “Thriving in our Digital World,” which encourages students to actively learn by solving problems. This is in direct contrast to traditional, lecture-based classes that relegate students to the role of passive recipients of instruction.

“Thriving in our Digital World” introduces students to the big ideas in computer science that exist across disciplinary boundaries. At the same time, it encourages the development of many college readiness skills, such as critical thinking, communication and teamwork. UT Austin’s Computer Science Department worked with the National Science Foundation and OnRamps, UT Austin’s dual-credit college-readiness initiative to design the Project Engage course.

"Our country is facing a bit of a crisis," said Calvin Lin, a professor of computer science at The University of Texas. "The huge demand for CS graduates is dramatically increasing the demand for high school CS teachers, but at the same time this demand is driving up the salaries for programmers, making it increasingly difficult to attract new CS teachers at the K-12 level. We need to find innovative ways to train new CS teachers, including methods that train in-service teachers who are not currently teaching computer science."

Teachers who will be facilitating “Thriving in our Digital World” attend a professional development summer institute focused on both course content and pedagogy. Afterwards, they receive ongoing support from an online learning environment and continuing professional development opportunities throughout the year.

This is important because many new computer science teachers have never taught in the field before. For example, this year the Austin Independent School District hired nine new computer science teachers. Only five have ever taught the subject before.

Paula McKinney, a veteran AP computer science teacher at Westlake High School commended “Thriving in our Digital World’s” impact on her students. "I had one student who didn't really know what the course was about and maybe didn't even expect to get anything from it. Her mother recently emailed me and told me that she's really considering this as a career, where she never would have before."

Currently, Project Engage has been adopted by 13 Texas high schools. The UT Austin scientists hope to eventually reach several hundred Texas high schools, as well as other states through the university’s UTeach Institute.

"The lack of computer science courses in high schools is a serious problem, so we're excited to address this issue," Lin said. "We're going to need to do much more, but this is a great start."