University of Virginia: A Computer Playdate For Adults May Lead To Your Kid’s Next School Assignment

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 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 the Education School’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.

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