On February 3, 2016, the Center for STEM Education Center played host to over 120 computer science educators at the Google Fiber Space in downtown Austin. Held during TCEA’s Annual Convention and Exposition, the WeTeachCS Mixer provided an opportunity for CS educators from across Texas to network, share ideas, and begin building a statewide professional learning community. This opportunity to connect with the larger CS education community is vital for many teachers, because there are relatively few CS teachers compared to other STEM fields. “Computer Science teachers often have no peers at school; we are the sole teacher of our subject area,” commented Midge Kayfez of Hays CISD when asked about the importance of networking events.
The event began with Dr. Carol Fletcher, deputy director of the Center for STEM Education, providing an update on the state of Computer Science Education in Texas. This included information the Obama Administration’s recently announced CS For All initiative and how it might benefit both students and teachers. During her presentation, Dr. Fletcher also spoke directly to the issue that concerned Midge Kayfez and others. Too few certified CS teachers not only means that most high schools in Texas do not offer computer science courses, but that being a CS teacher can be a professionally lonely job. The Center for STEM Education’s WeTeachCS program seeks to address the deficit in CS certified teachers through its TeachCS initiative. The initiative combines training with monetary incentives for teachers who successfully attain their Grades 8-12 Computer Science Teacher Certification. The WeTeachCS Mixer sought to address the isolation that some CS teachers feel by letting them know they are not alone and many teachers echoed Lannon Heflin of Round Rock ISD’s appreciation for, “the opportunity to network with some educators I know and many that I met for the first time, but all of whom are passionate about expanding access to computer science education in our schools.”
After the update, the evening’s featured speaker, UT Austin’s Dr. Mikhail Matz of the Department of Integrative Biology at the College of Natural Sciences took the stage. Dr. Matz delivered an energetic and engaging TED-style talk about his research on reef-building corals that combines supercomputing with biology, entitled “A Self-Debugging Code: How Genomes Adapt.” His presentation not only pointed out the similarities between genetic and computer code, but also, “underscored the fact that CS need not be approached in a standalone manner, and in many cases its real value comes from its application as a tool in science and engineering,” pointed out Ripal Nathuji of STEMEd Labs. In a research program of this type, the sheer amount of genetic material involved means the quality of the software used to analyze that data can be critical to the program’s success.
Following a spirited Q and A session, an open mic gave several CS community and educational organizations an chance to share additional resources and opportunities for CS teachers and students. Though faced with challenges, attendees seemed to share the sense of purpose and optimism expressed by long time TRC regional science project director, Dr. Sheryl Roehl, “What an exciting time to be involved in the UT Center for STEM Education’s initiative to help Texas teachers become prepared to offer computer science in every Texas school. Computer science is an essential tool for the digital world we live in and has caused massive changes in areas like research, economics, math, and science. I can’t wait to participate in the program and see the impact that this initiative has on students in Texas!”
Ultimately, the success of the evening could be measured by how many attendees stayed until the very end, only leaving when given promises that this would not be the last WeTeachCS Mixer.
The Center for STEM Education would like to thank Google for their support for CS education and for sponsoring the WeTeachCS Mixer.