CS Professor Lewis Co-PI on $500,000 NSF Award to Analyze CS Education Policy

9/5/2023 Caitlin Renwald

CS Professor Lewis Co-PI on NSF award to analyze CS educational policy. The project, Collaborative Research: Impacts of State Policy on Computer Science Participation and Teacher Preparation, will span three years. 

Written by Caitlin Renwald

Illinois Computer Science profcessor Colleen Lewis (right) and Paul Bruno, professor of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership, won a $500,000 award pose standing near the bottom of a staircase. Lewis and Bruno were Co-PIs on a proposal analyzing CS and educational policy from the National Science Foundation.
Photo Credit: Illinois News Bureau/L. Brian Stauffer
Illinois Computer Science professor Colleen M. Lewis (right) and Paul Bruno, professor of education policy, organization, and leadership, were recently awarded $500,000 from the NSF to analyze CS educational policy.

CS professor Colleen Lewis will serve as Co-PI on a three-year project examining Collaborative Research: Impacts of State Policy on Computer Science Participation and Teacher Preparation.

Lewis will join Education Policy, Organization and Leadership professor and PI on the project Paul Bruno as well as Kansas State University professor Tuan Nguyen in this effort. The team has been awarded nearly $500,000 from the National Science Foundation to use over a three-year span for their project.  

The team will conduct an analysis of specific data sets to determine the effectiveness of state policies aimed at increasing participation in CS education. Specifically, the project will analyze the success of policies intended to increase enrollment in high school and undergraduate CS courses and on the production of certified CS high school teachers.  

Proposed data sets include numbers on high school and undergraduate course enrollment, current high school teachers, and teacher certification programs. The analysis will also include state-level demographic, social, and economic markers to help determine potential barriers to access in CS education and teacher certification. 

To link these various policies to testable hypotheses, the team classified policies into three distinct categories for analysis. Specifically, they will examine the effect of policy on promoting CS course-taking, expanding the CS teacher supply, and demonstrating a general commitment to CS education (for example, by creating a state plan for K-12 CS education or establishing a statewide CS education supervisor). 

The team will then evaluate policy category impact by state using a data set spanning the years 2000-2022. 

The team plans to sift through the considerable amount of policy information available using event study models, which will allow them to compare states that have adopted certain policies with states that haven’t adopted policies to determine what happens when one state adopts one policy but not another. 

Through this comparison, they’ll be able to build a longitudinal data set that will allow them to compare outcomes in states before and after they adopted the policies to determine the short-term and long-term effectiveness of particular policies. 

A primary goal of the project is to analyze existing policies for their implementation and effectiveness. Currently, while there is significant interest in expanding CS educational opportunities, there has been little information available about the impact of certain policies. 

The project will provide lawmakers with practical guidance about which policies to prioritize to accomplish specific goals. Their findings, therefore, will be well-positioned to inform future changes in CS educational policy and practice.

CS professor Colleen Lewis knows about the gaps in CS education and teacher training from her own experiences as both a student and a teacher. 

Lewis’s interest in computer science was sparked in elementary school. Attending public schools in Fresno, California, her class spent one hour each week in the computer lab, learning both typing and programming. In high school, she took a computer science course for a graduation requirement, but didn’t opt into additional available CS courses because, at the time, she felt “those classes were for other people, not for me.”

As an undergraduate, she met a friend who encouraged her to take several CS courses. From those first few classes, her interest grew, and she decided to become a certified CS teacher. She soon discovered, however, that those credentials didn’t exist. At the time, those who taught CS were mainly credentialed in math and taught CS on the side. As a result, she decided to get a PhD so that she could teach people CS at the college level. She ultimately earned a PhD in education, focused on how people learn computer science. 

It’s barriers like these-scattered coursework, a limiting idea of what a CS student “looks like,” as well as few options for teacher training– that Lewis and Bruno hope to overcome through the implementation of new policies encouraging the expansion of CS programs in high schools and teacher training programs nationwide. 

By analyzing existing policies and their implementation, the team hopes to improve computer science learning at both the secondary and undergraduate levels. “Optimization starts with hiring qualified teachers with sufficient content and pedagogical knowledge to teach computer science,” Bruno said.

In addition, schools must be able to compensate these teachers appropriately, which can be a challenge, especially since teachers with specified tech knowledge could likely be making more money outside of education.

At the same time, as an academic subject, CS comes with its own challenges. The first challenge is having a large enough budget to supply adequate technology to students in the school. Another difficulty is determining where computer science fits into the larger school curriculum, especially at the secondary level where there is already a lot of curricular pressure on schools to offer certain content. 

Also, while computer science courses are usually taught by effective teachers, those teachers often have a background in business or physics, not in computer science.

Lewis named an additional challenge to CS within secondary schools. “Administrators often need their best teachers teaching math and reading because foundational math and reading skills are so important to people’s future,” she said. With the emphasis on these core subjects, it can be difficult to pull quality teachers into a subject that’s as specialized as CS. “We need to be sure that we’re not teaching computer science in ways that threaten students’ ability to develop those other foundational skills.”

Despite these challenges, Bruno is optimistic. “People already value STEM education generally, it’s not as polarizing as some other curricular pushes we’ve seen recently. There’s been more of an international push towards educational technology, especially concerning technological races around specific specialties, like AI or cybersecurity. There’s a lot of cross-curricular support for Computer Science.”

Lewis, too, is hopeful about the future of CS in education. She acknowledges the work that’s being done in high schools across the country to encourage broader participation in CS courses. For example,  the National Center for Women in Informational Technology  offers a Counselors for Computing (C4C)  program, designed to encourage high school counselors to “become advocates for broadening participation in computing to help challenge their notion of who computer science is for and what students might be interested.” 

Additionally, she recognizes the expansion of training programs for college students seeking a CS credential. She sees Illinois’ unique  CS + Education degree program as an innovative solution that offers both content and pedagogy to qualify teachers to teach CS, adding “I’d love to see more programs like ours.” 

Bruno hopes that the results of the policy analysis will “help policymakers make informed decisions about where to dedicate their resources to have the impacts on computer science education that they want. For policymakers who have limited resources and need to set priorities, it could potentially be helpful to have some information about which are the really high leverage policies that are going to help expand computer science education effectively and efficiently and equitably.”

Lewis and Bruno both value the diverse skill sets contributing to this project, noting the federal data knowledge that Professor Nguyen will bring to the group. Lewis described this particular project as characteristic of the University of Illinois ethos. "This is a very ‘Illinois’ project. Everyone here is collaborative and realizes they can do bigger, better, more impactful work by pulling together the right people with the right expertise,” she said. 

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This story was published September 5, 2023.