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New CS Certification Program to Help Illinois High School Teachers, Students Level Up

3/25/2021 10:26:41 AM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Over the course of his career with Illinois CS, professor Craig Zilles became decorated for his efforts teaching undergraduate students. Now, he’s found a new outlet for his passion to teach computer science.

Craig Zilles
Craig Zilles

In the classroom, Zilles’s inspiration comes not only by teaching computer science but by learning as much as possible about teaching it well.

Two years ago, a new project began pushing that effort out to a much larger group of teachers. In collaboration with colleagues from the College of Education, Zilles began designing a program that will offer a Teaching Endorsement in Computer Science to high school teachers. That certification is nearly ready to launch – and none too soon, since an education bill requiring Illinois high schools to provide opportunities for their students to take at least one CS course was just signed by Governor J.B. Pritzker.

Officially launching in summer 2021, applications open on April 26 for the five-semester CS endorsement track. Teachers enrolled in the program will attend class remotely with instructors from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Course Curriculum to Stoke a Vibrant CS Learning Experience

The Teaching Endorsement in Computer Science is a seven course (24 credit hours) curriculum sequence that meets ISBE’s credit requirement for obtaining a subsequent teaching endorsement in computer science.

Once enrolled, participants will benefit from instruction designed to both further their knowledge in CS, as well as portray the best way to translate that knowledge to high school students.

Specifically, courses include:

  1. Computer Programming and the Classroom
    This course introduces educators to the theoretical, pedagogical, and practical aspects of teaching computer programming in the K-12 setting, using Scratch as an introductory language.
  2. Introduction to Computer Science for CS Teachers
    This course introduces the core concepts of computer science and computer programming and provides educators with experience creating programs using text-based programming languages (Java).
  3. Discrete Mathematics for CS Teachers
    This course introduces fundamental mathematical concepts used for computations and is designed to emphasize the necessary understanding of mathematical formalism when teaching high school computing courses.
  4. Computer Systems for CS Teachers
    This course teaches the fundamentals of computer systems, including topics such as data representation and networking, while addressing the teaching needs for high school computing courses.
  5. Teaching Methods for CS Teachers
    This course is designed to help teachers put instructional theory into practice in computing classrooms with a focus on best practices and addressing common barriers to CS.
  6. Data Structures for CS Teachers
    This course teaches the fundamentals of data structures and provides opportunities for educators to reflect on the importance of data structure knowledge to teaching high school computer science.
  7. Capstone Project for CS Teachers
    In this course, educators design and present course materials for a high school classroom on a unique application of computer programming or a topic that is difficult for students to learn.

“This effort started in the College of Education, but I have had a similar thought in the back of mind for some time now. What makes a program like this relevant is the great interest in teaching computer science skills at the high school level. Currently the workforce can’t match that interest, though,” Zilles said. “Thanks to people like (professor) Luc Paquette and (research coordinator) Raya Hegeman-Davis in Education, we have an opportunity ahead to provide a solution.”

Zilles worked closely with Paquette to develop learning objectives and a high-level structure of the program. Then Paquette and Hegeman-Davis formed a group of CS PhD students to help build out the course structure and content.

CS PhD Students Design Agile, Engaging Curriculum

Max Fowler
Max Fowler

Now in his second year as a PhD candidate at Illinois CS, Max Fowler began contributing after choosing Craig Zilles as his adviser and serving with him as a teaching assistant in the Introduction to Computing: Non-technical (CS 105) course.

Fowler is one of three CS PhD students building out course content for this program. The other two students are Tanvi Bajpai and Morgan Fong. Fowler said his involvement stemmed from an early discussion with Paquette, who he told of his prior work in academia at Purdue University Fort Wayne.

While there as a continuing lecturer, and prior to joining the Illinois CS PhD program, Fowler said he tried to design a similar program in the state of Indiana.

It didn’t earn funding, but the experience motivated Fowler to make an impact in education by earning his PhD in CS.

“Hearing of this opportunity at Illinois CS from Craig and Luc proved to me that I was at the right place at the right time,” Fowler said. “I remember, Luc asked me if this would be something I was interested in, because he felt like it seemed a good fit based off my previous experience. Of course, he was right.

“I’m excited because we can help high school teachers learn from their own trials and successes in learning CS. They can then more effectively convey the lessons they learned to their own students.”

Addressing Secondary Education Disparities in CS

 As the group designed the program, further inspiration for the secondary certification presented.

Zilles said that income disparity can cause dissimilar computer science offerings in high school. Simply put, the richer the school district, the more opportunity for students to learn these skills before college.

At Illinois, all students are welcome to apply to an undergraduate CS major, regardless of their high school experience.

Woman at work station with laptop, notepad and cell phone
A primary goal of Illinois CS, through work like this teaching endorsement program, is to provide a more equitable high school experience in computer science. 

While the Illinois CS undergraduate program is designed so students can succeed with any background, students without programming experience can become discouraged if they see other students not having to work as hard – unaware that those other students have programming experience.

“What you don’t want to happen as an instructor is for some students to become hesitant when they are starting something new,” Zilles said. “Yet, they look over at their neighbor who is having a much easier time, and they may feel like they’re not cut out for it. No, no, no. It’s just that the others have done much more of it.

“It’s like training for a marathon; the participants who trained more will do a better job than those who trained less.”

Strong Collaborations Become a Difference-maker

Luc Paquette
Luc Paquette

So how did the group construct a program that could help offset this issue by providing a new opportunity for high school educators?

It started with building out the right courses and forming the right connections.

“I believe that the partnership between the College of Education and Illinois CS allowed us to develop an innovative curriculum connecting instruction on core CS concepts with a reflection upon the experience of CS learners,” said Paquette. “This is the right blend of expertise in an online teaching format to best reach teachers and students from all across the state of Illinois.”

It continued with keeping an overarching goal in mind during the program's formation.

"The best outcome to me is that students who wouldn’t have realized their interest in computing – because there are a bunch of kids who don’t have the opportunity to explore what computer science is – become motivated to continue studying it,” Zilles said.