This article is published in the January 2009 issue.

The Hard Work of Building Bridges

Expanding the Pipeline

The current enrollment crises in computer science and informatics at the post-secondary level have led to a much broader recognition of K-12 education as a critical partner in addressing pipeline and equity issues. The good news is that the current crisis has increased the willingness of many departments and faculty to reach across the educational barriers that have traditionally separated us. The bad news is that many are still not sure how to do so in a way that can lead to sustained improvements at both levels.

By early 2000, ACM was beginning to hear rumors of dropping enrollments in K-12 computer science classes, so it launched the ACM K-12 Task Force to get a better sense of the nature of the problem and its possible ramifications for the pipeline. What the Task Force uncovered can best be described as a multi-layered mess that included no real research on what teachers were teaching or how many students were taking computing courses, isolated and discouraged teachers, no curriculum standards, and almost no professional development to help teachers maintain and improve their technical and pedagogical skills.

The Task Force also noted that computer science was the only K-12 discipline with no subject-based professional association operating at the K-12 level. This meant nobody to represent and advocate for computer science in an environment:

  • Subject to significant social and political pressures,
  • Subject to multiple stakeholders with competing agendas and ideologies,
  • Subject to the politics of scarcity,
  • Where the practitioner base is overwhelmed and underpaid,
  • Where project sustainability is a constant struggle,
  • Where real, systemic change is rarely achieved, and
  • Where incremental change requires commitment, patience, perseverance, and a really good sense of humor

In 2005, ACM launched the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) with the goal of systemically addressing all of these issues and beginning to rebuild the critical bridge between K-12 and post-secondary computer science and informatics educators. Thanks to the work of the K-12 Task Force, CSTA hit the ground running with a national survey of high school computer science educators, the ACM Model Curriculum for K-12 Computer Science, and the Java Engagement for Computer Science partnership workshops.

The task of building relationships between K-12 and universities and colleges, however, was a bit more problematic. While a small handful of CS and IT departments had launched very successful outreach programs, many had no idea what the issues were in K-12, how to reach or communicate with the teachers, and how to build relationships that would be perceived as mutually beneficial and bring about sustained improvements.

With the support of ACM, as well as a Board of Directors and Advisory Council drawing from all levels of academic computing as well as from industry, CSTA began to transform itself into something of a bridging organization, translating the realities of K-12 to the post-secondary world and vice versa. While CSTA’s mission remained clearly focused on K-12, we began to see the importance of helping post-secondary educators develop more effective outreach programs.

CSTA also began to focus more attention on addressing the broad scope of equity issues affecting K-12 computer science education. As part of its research work, CSTA began collecting data on the percentage of young women and minority students in high school computing classes. It also began developing resources (on its own and in partnership with other organizations) specifically targeted at these student populations.

As a result of this work, we now have a very good idea of what does and does not work when it comes to K-12 outreach, and we have found that successful outreach programs have the following things in common:

  • The outreach team has taken the time to identify what local teachers need (often by actually talking to them) and focused their program on meeting those needs.
  • The goal of the outreach is building long-term relationships. As you can imagine, teachers are less receptive when they know that you are only calling them because you now need something from them.
  • Every communication from the outreach team clearly identifies the return on investment for the K-12 teachers. Recruiting more students for your program is not enough. Teachers want to know what you are doing for their programs and their students.
  • Engagement with minority populations is significantly enhanced by a solid relationship with the target community. This is especially true for projects focusing on Hispanic students where whole-family involvement can significantly enhance the project’s reach and impact.
  • The outreach team includes K-12 teachers who provide valuable contextual information on the realities of teaching in today’s schools.
  • The impact of the outreach program (both short term and long term) is continually measured.
  • There is a long-term commitment (once is not enough).

We can also tell you that if your department is not already doing active outreach in K-12, you need to start now. You do not, however, have to start from scratch. Most programs are local, so you can talk to other institutions who already have successful programs in place and are willing to share their expertise and also, possibly, their outreach resources.

You can also talk to organizations that have expertise, resources, or are building community around K-12 and outreach. Both CSTA and the NCWIT K-12 Alliance, for example, are very active in this area and have wonderful resources for teachers, students, and parents.

The final issue that may actually be the most problematic is that institutions that want to do successful outreach to K-12 must dedicate resources (both fiscal and human) to the effort. Too often, the task of doing the K-12 outreach is handed off to junior (untenured) faculty with no time and no money, or to grad students who should be concentrating on doing what they need to do to complete their educations. In addition, faculty who do outreach tell us that, as far as their institutions are concerned, it doesn’t really count in any of the ways that really mean something to faculty (such as tenure or release time).

The bottom line is that, as organizations and educators, we need to work together to build and strengthen this bridge between K-12 and post-secondary education if we are to have any hope of addressing the critical pipeline issues that affect us. This is important work. It needs to be done. And it should count.

Chris Stephenson is the Executive Director of the Computer Science Teachers Association.

The Hard Work of Building Bridges