Two years in, Rhode Island's expansion of computer science education notches a milestone

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Rhode Island says it has achieved the first major goal in its plan for statewide computer science education, with all public school students now exposed to some computer science in the classroom.

The announcement comes nearly two years after Gov. Gina Raimondo said she wanted to expose every K-12 student in the state to computer science instruction by December 2017. At the time she issued the challenge, March 2016, just nine Rhode Island public high schools offered AP computer science and only 42 public high school students took the related test. In 2017, students took 247 AP exams at 37 Rhode Island high schools.

The Computer Science for Rhode Island program, or CS4RI, received $260,000 in funding from the state budget and has heavily relied on public-private partnerships. Partners include Microsoft’s TEALS program, Code.org, Brown University’s Boostrap program and local organizations.

The plan spells out eight levels of engagement that correspond to the depth of computer science instruction in the school. The CS4RI website includes an interactive map detailing the level of each school, with the majority reaching the highest engagement levels of one or two.

“The goal for phase one was just exposure,” Daniela Fairchild, director of education for Rhode Island’s Innovation Office, told EdScoop. “Making sure we had some element, some programming for computer science in every school in the state.”

Although it reached its goal in terms of that exposure, the state still has a ways to go in getting stand-alone classes into every school. As of the second CS4RI Summit in December, though, 45 of 61 high schools offered yearlong or semester-long, stand-alone computer science classes, while just five of 55 middle schools and none of the state’s 179 elementary schools did, the Providence Journal reported.

For Fairchild and her team, making sure that all schools — urban, rural, large and small — were able to participate in the voluntary challenges that CS4RI outlined was a critical start.

“The biggest thing we did through the first phase of CS4RI,” Fairchild said, “was provide a vetted menu of options of programs that do computer science — curriculum, programming, training, etc. — and pay for that training. We made sure teachers and schools didn’t have to find funding in their budgets to do this.”

CS4RI cleared barriers for schools that didn’t have the resources to commit to a stand-alone computer science course, Fairchild told EdScoop, and has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from schools looking to dive further into computer science education.

Fairchild said more pathways for K-12 students will need to open up to provide consistent exposure to computer science. That’s a key component of the next phase of CS4RI, she said. One of the long-term goals of the program is to seek to double the number of computer science degree graduates in Rhode Island by 2025, raising that number from 800 in 2016 to 1,600 eight years from now.

“The point of phase 2 is really achieving equitable exposure and pushing for pathways,” Fairchild said, “so that it isn’t just ‘I experienced some level of computer science in sixth grade and then maybe again in 11th grade — kind of — but that there are good built out pathways for students to see how they could get from using a computational thinking toy in preschool to getting a computer science degree when they graduate college.”

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