An older man and a young woman wearing masks sit at a table working on a computer science project together

Charlottesville Partnership Pioneers New Model For Teaching Computer Science

Teachers, school administrators, researchers and nonprofit leaders in Charlottesville are working together to build a model for how to improve computer science education in elementary schools.

Laura Hoxworth

In 10 years, when today’s elementary school students enter the workforce, what skills and knowledge will they need to have to succeed? While we can’t know for sure, one thing is clear: it will involve computers.

“Computing is a new literacy,” said Jennifer Chiu, associate professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development.

Over the past several years, Chiu has been part of a growing local coalition to improve computer science education for young students. After the commonwealth added computer science to elementary school learning standards in 2017, momentum started building to organize a more formal effort.

The big question, Chiu said, was about supporting teachers. “How do we help teachers, who have so much on their plate and who may not feel like computer science experts, be able to integrate computer science into their practice in an equitable way?”

Two years later, the Charlottesville Computer Science Community (CCSC) is thriving.

Funded by a grant from the Virginia Department of Education, the CCSC is a research-practice partnership, a collaboration that promotes using and producing research in the field. It brings together experts and leaders from the UVA School of Education and Human Development, the Department of Computer Science in UVA’s School of Engineering, Charlottesville City Public Schools and local after-school nonprofits Tech-Girls and C4K.

Primarily, the partnership organizes professional development training sessions for cohorts of Charlottesville City elementary and middle school teachers. But it also offers an online “CS Institute” free to anyone who works with youth. They work with UVA EHD's Design Lab, introducing current and future teachers to tools and methods for teaching computer science and lending out technology, like robotics kits, to teachers across the state. They provide a host of free online resources, produce a podcast, present at conferences, partner with local businesses and more.

This month, the group launched a series of informal “Design Lab Playdates” – casual, low-stress, community-building opportunities for both teachers and after-school mentors to network with one another and engage with computer science teaching tools.

Altogether, the initiative aims to make Charlottesville an example of how to teach young students computer science: student-centered, project-based and community-focused.

Making Computer Science Accessible

Kim Wilkens, founder of Tech-Girls and a key community leader in the partnership, initially stumbled into teaching following a career at IBM. But when she learned that the percentage of female computer scientists had shrunk between the 1980s and the early 2000s, it ignited a passion.

Now, after a decade as a computer science educator and community advocate for women in tech, Wilkens is working on her education doctorate at UVA in addition to her role with the partnership. It’s all toward a goal of bringing more diverse students into computer science.

“Computer science is the foundation of all the technology innovations that are happening out in the world,” she said. “We need more folks at the table.”

Historically, Chiu said, computer science brings with it a lot of implicit biases – about who does computer science and what a computer scientist looks like, for example.

“As a field, we’re not getting diverse perspectives in computing,” she said. “There’s bias in terms of who it’s designed for, how it’s being used, and who’s creating these technologies.”

Wilkens points to the CSforAll initiative, a commitment the group has made to provide professional learning for at least 42 K-8 teachers, serving 1,000 students, by the summer of 2023. Equity is also at the core of their professional development offerings.

“A big part of what we do through the CCSC is sharing equitable teaching strategies and reducing implicit bias,” Wilkens said. In part, that involves helping teachers understand and be aware of the implicit beliefs that they might hold, then giving them strategies to mitigate those beliefs.

To do so, the team has built on the strong foundation of the UVA computer science department’s successful Tapestry workshop. Created in 2008 by professors Joanne and Jim Cohoon, Tapestry is a professional development workshop for high school teachers designed to increase the number and diversity of students learning computer science. Luther Tychonievich, an associate professor of computer science, now runs the program and has adapted it for elementary school teachers as part of the partnership.

Ultimately, he said, the goal is to give teachers the skills and strategies they need to make computer science more accessible to all students.

Creating that sense of belonging early on in a student’s education, Chiu said, is critical. “One of the most important parts of doing this is for students to be exposed to computing in a broad sense – to make them feel like they can be a part of the computing community."

Building Teachers’ Skills and Confidence

Unlike the high school computer science teachers enrolling in Tapestry, elementary teachers typically are not content experts in computer science. In fact, many are unfamiliar and apprehensive about teaching computer science concepts.

“The biggest single difference is that the elementary school teachers are generally not already comfortable with the material,” Tychonievich said. “And I think that lack of comfort is more important than their lack of familiarity.”

For that reason, much of the workshop content is designed to help teachers feel not just comfortable, but confident. That includes debunking myths – like, for example, that you must be sitting in front of a computer to do computer science.

“Computer science sometimes gets a bad reputation because people just think of lines of code on a screen,” said Nigel Standish, director of science, technology, engineering and math for Charlottesville City Schools. “And that’s not the focus at all of what this partnership is doing. We’ve been paring down some of the misconceptions and instilling some really stellar ways that computer science can enhance thinking and learning skills, and increase effectiveness across all domains.”

The training also includes concrete, simple ideas for how basic computer science concepts like design-thinking and problem-solving can easily integrate into existing lesson plans.

Teachers are often surprised to find out that a lot of things they’re already doing are actually computing concepts,” Chiu said. For example, storyboarding in English language arts or data analysis in mathematics and science already involve computing concepts.

Teachers can incorporate basic computing skills into various new activities, too, either with computers or through “unplugged” activities like card games. Often, particularly in younger grades, computer science lessons don’t include computers at all. Students can learn about conditional logic – IF it’s cold, THEN I should wear a coat – through classroom routines, for example.

Are the training sessions working? So far, Chiu said, the findings from surveys and classroom observations suggest the partnership’s work with Charlottesville teachers has had a significant impact, both on the teachers’ mindsets and their classroom practices.

“We’ve seen an increase in their understanding about computer science, an increase in their self-efficacy to teach computer science, and they’re actually implementing these lessons in their instruction,” she said.

Creating a Model Partnership

The central idea behind a research-practice partnership is that when researchers and practitioners work together, everyone benefits; research findings translate into better classroom practices, which in turn create better research opportunities. But according to its leaders, the value of this partnership extends far beyond the research-practice cycle.

Importantly, they are building an active, enduring local community around a shared passion for computer science education.

“There is great value in that stability,” Tychonievich said. “You spend less time trying to create new relationships and find new ways of doing things, and more time thinking about how we can do what we’re doing better.”

Leaders also note how the diversity of perspectives creates an environment that naturally sparks creativity. With researchers, school leaders and nonprofit directors all at the table, innovative ideas – like the Design Lab Playdates – have space to grow.

“I like how we can leverage each other’s strengths and build together a computer science culture that might look a little different than traditional classrooms,” Chiu said.

Ultimately, the hope is for the partnership’s impact to extend beyond Charlottesville. The group is already exploring new projects with neighboring counties, but Tychonievich said the team is optimistic that their work will not only benefit the local area, but also become a model that can be replicated throughout the country.

“We’re definitely seeing some momentum building,” Wilkens said. “Having grant funding helped us put the stake in the ground to say, ‘OK, we’re going to do this,’ and we’re going to keep looking for opportunities to expand it.”

The team encourages anyone interested in getting involved to reach out. “We’re always happy to involve more teachers or more partners,” Chiu said.

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Laura Hoxworth