UI program aims to combat lack of computer-science teachers

UI program aims to combat lack of computer-science teachers

URBANA — It's often hard to get a glimpse at how the sausage gets made when it comes to high school curricula. But an initiative started by the University of Illinois offers a glimpse into the burgeoning field of computer-science instruction in Illinois.

Because Chicago Public Schools now requires all high-schoolers to take at least one computer-science class in order to graduate, the UI is launching the Illinois Secondary Teacher Education and Computer Science initiative, which aims to establish an undergraduate program to certify future high school computer-science teachers.

Involving faculty and administrators from the colleges of Education and Engineering and the Council on Teacher Education, I-STECS would make the UI the third university in Illinois to offer endorsements in computer-science instruction, alongside Illinois State University and Northeastern Illinois University, and the first to offer licences.

Recruitment for the new degree program will focus on incoming freshmen in math and physics, students already in computer science, and education students who want to bring computers into their classrooms, UI officials said.

Luc Paquette, assistant professor in Curriculum and Instruction and project coordinator, said the goal of the program is to fill computer-science teaching positions currently vacant because of a lack of certified people. Right now, it's a chicken-and-egg problem, he said.

"As we were starting to work on the initiative, one of the things we found out is that there wasn't a licensure at the state level for computer science," Paquette said. "So one of the issues that we're facing in Chicago is trying to break the cycle of not having many teachers trained, which means there's not a lot of schools that offer computer-science courses. And because there's not a lot of schools, then it doesn't make sense in getting certified. It's a vicious cycle."

To break it, I-STECS faculty will work for five years to determine feasibility, develop the curriculum and implement it. Paquette said he couldn't be more confident in his team.

"We're all people that are interested in education and computer science, and we want to kind of share our love for CS and provide those opportunities at Illinois," Paquette said. "We know that sometimes the way CS is taught can be a little bit dry and difficult, and I think this is an opportunity for us to figure out how we make teaching CS something that's more accessible and that's going to make it easier for everyone to succeed."

Part of building the curriculum is figuring out what students coming into the UI already know in the field of computer science. The question is: How do you make it accessible for 16-year-olds?

Associate Professor of Computer Science Craig Zilles said one solution could come from the East Coast in the form of Scratch, beginner-level computer-programming software developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"It's the best way we've found that will make CS accessible to the broader population to try to introduce the idea of computational thinking that's a little less frustrating for people," Zilles said. "It's much harder to do wrong things with Scratch; it prevents huge classes of errors. That's the kind of thing we're looking at for when we roll out requirements for all students."

But the curriculum is only one hurdle I-STECS faces. Another issue: finding incentives that will lure computer-science graduates to jobs in the public schools, instead of employers like Google and Facebook.

"If you have that level of skill, it's pretty easy to get into the industry and get a six-figure job," Zilles said. "But some people think they want that and end up not liking it. There are people out there that are interested in computing careers but want a very people-facing career also."

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