Rhode Island set a goal to offer computer science classes in every public school by December 2017 to help fuel the state’s push to build a bigger tech workforce.
Gov. Gina Raimondo unveiled the “Computer Science for Rhode Island” initiative Monday at a Pawtucket high school, outlining the state’s new partnership with tech companies, nonprofits and state universities to make computer classes accessible for every student from kindergarten through high school.
Microsoft, the nonprofit Code.org, Brown University and the University of Rhode Island are among the groups that have pledged to offer resources and training for public school employees involved in the effort. General Assembly, a tech education company, will also work with the state’s Department of Education and Office of Innovation to develop a computer science “boot camp” for Rhode Island’s teachers.
“The next Mark Zuckerberg could be here in this auditorium, but we’ll never know unless we give you access to these basic skills,” Raimondo said. “It’s about reducing barriers so every single student has a chance to make it in Rhode Island. That means girls, people of color, lower income people. Everybody deserves a chance.”
Raimondo noted the state’s Department of Labor and Training projects there will be more than 4,000 computer and math-related job openings in Rhode Island by 2022, yet she believes the state’s education system is lagging behind when it comes to equipping students with the skills they need to step into those roles. Specifically, she pointed to state research showing that just 1 percent of students in Rhode Island public high schools are currently enrolled in computer science classes, and that only nine schools in the state offer Advanced Placement classes on the subject.
Accordingly, Richard Culatta — Rhode Island’s chief innovation officer — told StateScoop that the program is aimed at building a “pipeline” that gets students engaged with computer science before they get to high school.
“This has got to start way before that,” Culatta said. “We need to build a diverse, strong pipeline of students starting way before high school in order to build Rhode island into the innovation hub that we want it to be.”
Culatta has long been an advocate for bringing technology into the classroom: He served as the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology before joining the state in January. Since jumping aboard with Raimondo’s administration, Culatta said he’s worked to pull in a variety of computer science education providers to help the state’s schools get the necessary resources to start offering these classes.
“Our schools have different needs with different opportunities, so we came up with different programs that would meet those needs,” Culatta said. “This isn’t something that government can do by itself and isn’t something that the industry can do by itself.”
Octavia Abell, director of strategy in Culatta’s Office of Innovation, added that the process involved extensive negotiations with each organization so that they could “meet the schools where they are” and offer resources and guidance unique to each situation.
“We’ve essentially said, ‘Hey, we’re going to make advanced connections with these schools, but you need to come to them with an offering that they wouldn’t be able to get off the shelf,’” Abell said.
But Culatta noted that “none of these programs work without teachers,” making the development of General Assembly’s education effort for instructors a key element of the initiative.
“I don’t really know anywhere else that this is happening in the country,” Culatta said. “It’s also going to make the program sustainable, because we’re not just saying, ‘How do we train our current teachers?’ and constantly playing catchup with new developments in the field, but it’s about giving future teachers a way to access this.”
In addition, Raimondo is proposing $260,000 in her budget for the new fiscal year to be dedicated to computer-science-related professional development for teachers, a move that Culatta hopes will reduce the “barrier to entry” for participation in the programs the state’s new partners will be offering.
Should that funding pass the Legislature, and the rest of the Raimondo’s computer science push succeed, Culatta thinks Rhode Island will be among the nation’s leaders in providing an innovative educational experience for students.
“It’s about providing students with opportunities to be creators and problem solvers, and creation and problem solving and design really requires an understanding of technology,” Culatta said.
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