U. Illinois embarks on 5-year plan to train next generation of CS educators

Foellinger Auditorium at University of Illinois (Getty Images)

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The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has launched a five-year initiative to address the workforce gap in secondary education computer science educators.

The Illinois Secondary Teacher Education and Computer Science initiative, which will educate and certify undergraduate students, graduate students and in-service professionals in computer science instruction begins development this year, a university spokesperson told EdScoop. The I-STECS initiative answers calls from politicians, business leaders and educational leaders to create more computer science education programs in Illinois, as well as nationally, according to a press statement from James D. Anderson, dean of the U. Illinois College of Education.

The first steps of the initiative will be to secure course licenses, develop curriculums, and lay the administrative groundwork for the program, said Gina Manola, a U. Illinois spokeswoman.

Ultimately, the program will educate high school teachers and students studying to become teachers, and certify them to teach computer science courses. After five years of development, administrators plan for I-STECS to be running in full gear and will deliver the first cohorts of CS-certified high school teachers to schools in Chicago and districts across Illinois.

“I hope by then we have a functional undergraduate program that’s enrolling 25 students a year, and an online program with significant numbers of teachers,” Mark Dressman, a professor at U. of Illinois’ College of Education and project coordinator of the I-STECS, said in an announcement.

Program enrollment is slated to begin in 2020.

A vicious cycle

There is a shortage of qualified computer science teachers in high schools. According to Code.org, only 75 teachers graduated from universities equipped to teach computer science in 2016. This is in contrast to the 12,528 teachers who graduated that year prepared to teach mathematics. Yet, half of parents believe coding and computer programming to be the most beneficial subject to their child’s future employability, according to a 2018 Microsoft survey.

Although the importance of computer science is being increasingly recognized and many districts have begun to mandate computer science curriculum — Chicago Public Schools is now requiring it to graduate, for example — qualified faculty to instruct these classes are still scarce.

Dressman said that Illinois has found itself in a vicious cycle. There are few computer science classes offered because there are few teachers who are certified in the subject, and teachers aren’t getting certified because most schools don’t offer computer science classes.

“Why get certified in something you aren’t going to teach?” he said.

Project leaders say the I-STECS initiative will be the driving force in breaking that cycle.

“I see this connecting the College of Education to the university’s emerging role as this engine of science and technology,” Dressman said.

A collaborative effort involving faculty and administrators from the College of Education, the College of Engineering, and the Council on Teacher Education, I-STECS is one of 14 proposed projects and only the second recipient of “Investment for Growth” funding. Now in its second year, the Investment for Growth Program has an approximately $11 million investment pool — with contributions from each college and campus research institute at U. Illinois — to fund initiatives and programs on campus with the potential to provide additional net revenue.

Long-term, the I-STECS initiative is hoped to benefit U. Illinois students and teachers across the state. Dressman said the program will also benefit the state’s economy. By educating and certifying more computer science teachers, highs-school students who receive computer science instruction can eventually help vivify the state’s economy.

“To live in the 21st century, everything you do is going to be digital,” he said. “There’s a real need for people to know how that stuff works.”

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