Archive for June 30, 2010

High School Computing Education needs more Barbaras

Georgia’s high school computer science education efforts lead the nation to a large extent because Georgia Tech invested in a Barbara — Barbara Ericson, Director of CS Outreach for the College of Computing.  Of course, we got a really good Barbara (and I’m heavily biased, as Barb’s collaborator, co-author, and husband) and that matters a lot.  As I talk to people who are interested in improving K-12 computing education, and they ask me how we did what we’ve done in Georgia, I realize how critical was the investment that the College of Computing made in hiring Barbara.

Barb was hired in 2004 as part of our Institute of Computing Education (ICE) that Maureen Biggers started. Georgia’s Department of Education had moved Computer Science to the Business Department — the Career, Technical, and Agricultural Education Department.  This gave CTA their first Advanced Placement exam, and they wanted to grow that.  They wanted more AP CS teachers, and they wanted to use Media Computation to do it.  Barb had been working as a programmer/consultant on various projects in Java and teaching adult education classes for the College part-time.  She knew the material and was an accomplished adult educator.

It wasn’t too much of a gamble for the College, as several administrators mentioned to me.  CTA would pay for teacher education workshops, so that covered about half of Barb’s salary.  The College figured that we’d find funding for the other half of Barb. By 2006, we had started Georgia Computes!.  Barb is now paid through external funding and her workshops for teachers.

Look at how much the state has got out of that investment!  Barb’s sole job for the College is to increase the number of students taking AP CS, because that increases the number of students going into Computer Science.  She’s not tenure-track, and she doesn’t teach other classes for Georgia Tech.  Her sole job is to grow computer science at the high school level.

  • Barb has taught literally hundreds of computer science teachers around the state.  As DCCE participants said in their presentations a couple weeks ago, “Barbara returns emails!”  She gets questions from teachers ranging from how to teach arrays, to how to install DrJava on their lab computers.  She visits teachers in their schools and does guest lectures occasionally.  Besides the four textbooks she’s co-authored since she started this gig, she produces enormous amounts of materials for teachers.  I see her generating Powerpoint slides and example code all summer long for her workshops.
  • When the State decided to create a high school curriculum, Barb was an obvious person for that committee.  She played a huge role in getting Georgia to use the ACM Model K-12 Curriculum as a starting place.
  • When the State decided to create a teaching endorsement so that we would have a kind of certification for CS high school teachers, Barb was on that committee, too.
  • She argued with lots of people to get AP CS to count for something in high school graduation requirements.  It counts as a Science in Georgia (and a Math in Texas, and those are still the only two states in the US that consider CS as fulfilling any high school graduation requirements).

Barb and I were talking this last weekend about how this all has its own momentum now.  There are leaders among the high school computer science teachers who have used workshops and other events to find like-minded fellow teachers.  They are forming a community. Georgia teachers are starting a fledgling (not yet approved) CSTA chapter.  Teachers get together on their own to share efforts and stories.  It’s not just Barbara, but I don’t think it would have happened without Barbara.

Barbara teaching teachers has a huge multiplier effect.  It may take Barb 10 hours to produce an hour of workshop material.  But if she has 25 teachers in the workshop, and they each have 25 students, those 10 developer hours impacted a lot of students quickly.

Barb is uniquely talented and has accomplished an enormous amount in Georgia.  However, there are other potential “Barbaras” out there.  I’m suggesting that the critical idea was hiring a talented person, based in a University (that has important authority/prestige/getting-attention implications), whose job it is to improve computing education for the whole State (amortizing costs quickly).  It is an expense, and that’s hard to justify in these times.  It was a gamble by the College’s leadership, but it more than paid off.

Think of Barbara (and ICE, and “Georgia Computes!”) as a model for state-wide high school computing education reform.  Hire a smart, talented person who is willing to pour lots of energy and charm into the job.  Use paid workshops to cover part of the salary, and seek external support for the rest.  (With the new CPATH+BPC programs coming out of NSF this summer, there should be funds available.)  Get collaborations started with the Department of Education, high schools, and colleges and universities in the state. Support the teachers all year round.  Give it time — this is Barb’s sixth summer of workshops.  It’s amazing what one good person can make happen, given the chance.

If you want computing education to grow in your state, try hiring a Barbara.  It’s a relatively small investment with potentially large rewards.

June 30, 2010 at 11:10 am Leave a comment

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