Wyoming public schools are implementing a curriculum that gives computer science a place among major subjects of study.
New standards drafted by a team of statewide education professionals aim to introduce the basics of the subject at the elementary level and provide students with computer literacy that leaves them prepared for a tech-driven world.
“It has been like the Wild West of teaching with computer science as long as classes have been being taught,” said associate professor Andrea Burrows at the University of Wyoming School of Education, who helped draft the initial set of new computer science standards. “Where other disciplines were regulated, computer science was an open bag. There was no definition of what it was or where you were going until you got to a very top-tier level.”
Burros said having defined curricular descriptions helps increase understanding that computer science is more than simply using technology, but understanding how it works beyond the capacity of a casual consumer.
“If we aren’t moving forward as a state, (we’re) putting our students at risk – more than we should,” Burrows said, adding there are no assessments connected to the new standards at this time. “These standards allow us to address what we are and are not doing.”
While the integration of technologies and computer science has been a natural progression in society, it takes a concentrated effort for those changes to reverberate through the educational system.
Wyoming Department of Education Student and Teacher Resource Team Supervisor Laurel Ballard said her organization has two roles in implementing new curriculum standards.
“In addition to working on standards and running down tracks, we also support the districts,” she said. “How do we teach computer science when there are few computer science teachers in the state? How do we create this at an elementary level where there are no electives? We have to figure out how to plan time and resources.”
Laurie Hernandez, WDE director of standards and assessment, said figuring out a game plan to move forward means different things at different grade levels. She said implementation of the standards is being felt the most by teachers at the elementary level, who are being required to gain additional certifications on top of their existing continuing education.
“At the elementary level, emphasis is on giving foundational skills and exposure,” Hernandez said. “One concern we have seen is that elementary teachers see another demand coming at them that they don’t feel prepared for.”
Since their inception, the proposed standards have been written and rewritten to reflect developmentally appropriate goals for various grade levels. Goals for the end of second grade include foundational concepts, like understanding, and using cybersecurity and applications to collect or present information. By high school graduation, students are expected to be able to create computer programs using sequencing, debugging and documenting the evolution of an artifact.
“The way originally written, it was broken down very detailed to give teachers examples, and I think that backfired when people looked at it because it looked overwhelming,” said Burrows. “With the rewrites, I believe there have been ideas combined and made to go across some grade levels so it seems more achievable.”
The standards include mandatory teaching points and enhanced skills that may or may not be achieved, depending on resources and staff available to individual districts. This concept has been a point of contention because Wyoming public schools, by law, are mandated to be uniform. During the final drafting phase of the new standards, the Wyoming Board of Education consulted the attorney general for an opinion regarding whether having priority and enhanced standards would stand up under a constitutional challenge.
The development and implementation of the new statewide standards has been slow to take off. First signed by then-Gov. Matt Mead nearly a year and a half ago, the state Board of Education submitted a final version of the standards to Gov. Mark Gordon on Nov. 22.
While there has certainly been a significant amount of apprehension about loading up more requirements at the elementary level, educators believe the new standards can be implemented without a drastic reworking of existing classroom concepts. Additionally, when teachers realized they were already doing much of what the new requirements call for, there has been a sense of relief.
“What we are finding is that they are already teaching the concepts, but they are not being intentional or deliberate about it,” Ballard said. “When they teach math, it’s about following a step-by-step process. In computer science, that’s debugging.”
Some of the elementary-level standards have been trimmed down, but the new standards still saddle already loaded elementary teachers with additional training, certification and curricular requirements, and educators across the state are in a rush to prepare for the 2022 implementation deadline.
In terms of introducing computer science at the elementary level, where there aren’t elective courses, schools around the state either work the new curriculum into a separate time block or incorporate it into existing projects.
“What we have seen this far in terms of the districts we are working with, we are amazed at how far they have been able to move in 18 months,” said Hernandez. “It’s impressive what they have done without the curriculum actually being formally in place.”
“In the end, the standards are absolutely what’s best for students, so that shouldn’t be up for debate,” Burrows said. “Our students deserve to graduate with a skill set that allows them to choose from a variety of majors. We want students to think critically and perform in a skill area, and those skill sets change with the world.”