Amy Ko, STEP CS Program, co-founder and UW Information School professor.
Amy Ko, STEP CS Program, co-founder and UW Information School professor.
Washington recently passed legislation mandating every school district operating a high school in the state to, at minimum, offer one elective computer science class to high school students no later than the 2022-23 school year.
One local resource helping address this need is the University of Washington’s recently launched Secondary Teacher Education Program Computer Science Program, a yearlong teacher-eduction pathway that graduates its students with a Master in Teaching degree with a residency teacher certificate for middle- or high-school computer-science instruction.
A few months after the program’s first cohort graduated in spring 2022, Google — whose presence on the Eastside is continuing to grow — announced that it was gifting the program $400,000. The financial support will be used not only for growth but also to subsidize the tuition of teacher candidates who historically have been in CS’ margins — people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and/or those living with disabilities. (UW noted in a release that recent “CS for All” Washington data found that about 87 percent of all CS teachers in the state in 2021 were white.) This boost in accessibility only feeds into the goal the STEP CS Program, founded by Information School professor Amy Ko and College of Education associate professor Anne Beitlers, had in mind in its earliest stages of development.
“The overarching mission we’re on is to try to think about ways to really broaden who participates in computer science — and, therefore, who participates in making our computational world,” Ko told 425 Business in mid-November. “Teachers are really a central part of that.”
Ian Goodhew, Google’s head of government and public affairs for the Pacific Northwest, told 425 Business that the company always is looking for ways to partner with state universities’ computer science programs to nurture mutually beneficial growth.
“The concentration on STEM and computer science is a natural fit, because we want those future computer scientists to come and work for us and other technology companies big and small,” said Goodhew, who hopes Google’s contribution will spur other entities to support the program. “But (Ko’s) particular emphasis (is) on underrepresented communities and segments of our communities — in particular, getting people opportunities (they) maybe wouldn’t normally. It’s a community good — and, to be blunt, it’s also good for us, because it creates more and more potential applicants in the future to come and work for us so that we can walk the walk when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion in our workforce.”
Ko and Beitlers started thinking about what would eventually become the STEP CS Program about five years ago. They were interested in devising a program that would not merely develop teaching students’ computer-science expertise but also find a way to make them fall in love with teaching it in general, pushing students to consider the role computer science plays in society beyond merely efficient programming.
A big success seen during the program’s inaugural run, Ko said, was the variety of perspectives brought in by instructors, with teachers specializing not just in computer science but also information science, behavioral science, design, English, language learning, and more.
“I think that really helps all of the aspiring teachers in our classrooms see that computer science isn’t just one thing,” Ko said. “It’s not just the disciplines as it is, but it’s actually different things to different people, depending on what they need to use it for. That’s a really essential message for students to learn, as well.”
STEP CS Program alum Darioush Mansourzadeh, who is based in Lynnwood and now teaches at Kirkland Middle School, became interested in the program initially because he was interested in having a CS endorsement. Then he was all in when he learned that program costs would be covered. Something Mansourzadeh particularly appreciated about the program was its wide-ranging outlook — the way it moved beyond the more arduous, technical bootcamp models through which many people, including himself, get acquainted with computer science — to explore larger questions about its societal role.
“There’s an odd, competitive nature that exists in CS,” said Mansourzadeh, who added that he wouldn’t have his current job without the endorsement from the STEP CS Program. “Seeing Amy — someone who is so successful in the field, and is so intelligent and focused — really grappling with these ideas and showing how it manifests and what it could be and what it should be and why … it serves not just the people who are in CS but anyone who has an interaction with computer science.”
When asked about the importance of something like the STEP CS Program, particularly in relation to the Eastside — where tech companies such as Google, Microsoft, Meta, and Amazon continue to broaden their influence — Ko noted the inextricably linked importance of ensuring that the educational systems helping populate these companies’ workforces succeed.
“Let’s take Microsoft, for example — it’s hard not to talk about them on the Eastside,” Ko said. “Microsoft is really committed over the past several years in thinking really intentionally about how to diversify their engineering and design workforce. All of that requires other systems — other educational systems — prior to people taking those jobs to thrive as well. If they don’t thrive in colleges or universities … to become interested in computer science and feel supported in it, they won’t ever show up to those jobs.
“I think this is why Google, and why Microsoft in particular, has really been proactive in trying to think about how they can support those other systems and other pathways that really come prior to a lot of those jobs. Because when they don’t, they can’t solve their recruiting problems, because we’re all connected in that way.”
The STEP CS Program hopes to raise a total of $1 million. The tuition-subsidizing element the Google funding is supporting is a major step forward; a significant goal using the remaining funding, Ko said, is to address things such as costs of living and creating systems to support community among CS teachers, given that, once they’re in the field, there’s a chance they might be the only person in their specialty in an entire district.
Refining recruitment also is key.
“The bottom line is that our teacher workforce is mostly white women in computer science right now,” Ko said. “That’s just not the diversity that we need in order to really diversify who’s in classrooms. … In no way is this trying to displace them — (this program) is trying to grow who teaches computer science. That really requires a relentless focus on trying to bring in teachers who are just not participating right now.”
Geographic considerations need to be made, too, Ko noted.
“That’s really going to mean looking beyond the Eastside. It’s going to mean thinking about rural districts in Central Washington and Eastern Washington, Southwest Washington — agricultural communities,” she said. “It may be that some of the teachers that are in those regions of our state and the broader Pacific Northwest, they’re going to be the ones that prepare the students and end up ultimately moving to the city and becoming the future engineers and designers that work for companies on the Eastside. We can’t pretend that we’re separate from that — we actually have to figure out how to make teachers in Central Washington thrive in order for Seattle to thrive, and Bellevue and Redmond and beyond.”
Blake Peterson is the digital coordinator for 425 Business.
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