Jeff Gray grew up in Appalachia with a love of science. As a first-generation college student, Gray’s parents realized the benefits of supporting his exploration of science and technology. “I look back at my own experience at science fairs, and I know that’s what got my own passion started,” he says—he clearly saw the value of being exposed to science and technology at a young age.
When he became a CS professor at the University of Alabama, Gray realized that few high school students in the state, especially in rural areas, were receiving early exposure to CS education. Without CS knowledge, Gray realized students wouldn’t be prepared for job opportunities, especially since Alabama has become a hub for CS-related jobs over the past few decades, particularly in the Huntsville region with the technology outgrowth from NASA’s influence.
But connecting students to these opportunities posed barriers. In many rural school districts in Alabama, which contain some of the most impoverished counties in the United States, CS education is scarce. In 2007, there were only three full-time high school teachers approved to teach CS in the entire state (out of 454 high schools statewide). Out of the twenty-seven students who took the AP Computer Science A (AP CSA) exam that year, there were only three women and three African American students who sat for the exam. In a state where African Americans make up twenty-five percent of the population, it was evident there was a large divide in equitable access to CS education.
“We needed to close this gap,” explains Gray, who believed teacher professional development (PD) would improve CS education at the individual school level. Unfortunately, in the late 2000s, there was little state funding allocated for CS education, much less CS PD for teachers. Initially, Gray tried to build student knowledge of CS through summer programs at the university. “We could only influence about forty students at a time,” Gray says. Though impactful, small summer programs were not a practical way to scale his efforts.
Gray saw an opportunity to amplify his efforts by helping teachers hone in on their CS skills. “If we could train thirty to forty teachers at a time, the influence on students can be an order of magnitude larger,” Gray says. In 2011, Gray received the first of six annual Google Educator PD grants to provide introductory CS PD. He focused on pedagogy and engagement strategies for high school teachers across the state.
The funding, Gray says, provided mentorship and support to sustain a budding group of CS educators, a key element to creating sustainable CS education in Alabama. “We focused on the community-building aspect for teachers first—not a one-time class,” he explains. Gray continued teaching introductory CS PD through 2013, reaching close to 100 educators since receiving the initial grant.
Given the pressing demand for PD, Gray needed a better way to “train the trainer” so that teachers could then return to their local community to train other teachers. He broadened his PD program in 2014 by creating a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) to help teachers prepare for the AP CS Principles (CSP) exam. The course, which includes 120 videos focusing on various exam components, was built to reach teachers not only in Alabama but across the country and is still available as an online course.
"The geometric growth of the train-the-trainer model of professional development is vital toward addressing the needs of scalability and sustainability in K-12 CS education."Jeff Gray, Professor of Computer Science, University of Alabama College of Engineering
Planting a seed to grow local CS education
Gray attributes his success of CS education in the K-12 space to Google’s Educator Grant. After being awarded his first Google grant, Gray went on to receive an additional $1 million in funding from the National Science Foundation (with A+ College Ready) to expand CS PD programs throughout Alabama. Gray believes that training educators to teach CS will encourage more students (especially historically underrepresented minorities) to study the discipline. He now co-chairs the Governor's Task Force for CS education in Alabama and is working with colleagues at his College of Education towards a pre-service pathway for Secondary Math Education majors at the University of Alabama.
Expanding the impact of professional development
Gray’s approach to PD, whether through personalized learning or through a custom built MOOC, has raised teacher expertise in Alabama and nationwide. Experienced CS teachers around the state can now train teachers in their own schools. Today, there are 130 teachers trained in teaching AP CSP statewide, compared with just three teachers in 2007. The CS Principles MOOC has virtually trained over two thousand teachers since 2014.
Sparking self-efficacy in CS educators
Gray and his colleagues are seeing the growth of a budding community of CS educators by investing in teacher development for the past six years. “We’re watching our teachers step up as national leaders,” Gray says—such as Carol Yarbrough, a CS teacher at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, who’s now a member of the College Board’s AP CS Principles Development Committee.
Reaching students who are underrepresented in CS
“Students don’t need to all become engineers, but we think it’s as important for them to understand the fundamentals of how the messages they create every day are encrypted, as it is to dissect a frog,” he says. “Students need to understand how technology works underneath so many subjects.” In 2017, 1,700 Alabama high school students took the AP CS Principles exam, compared with just twenty-seven students in 2007, prior to Gray’s CS teacher training and MOOC course. Over 150 of the 2017 AP CS Principles test-takers were African American, compared to three who took the AP CSA in 2007; over 500 women took the AP CS Principles in 2017, compared to only three taking the AP CSA in 2007. Students “need to see it to be it,” says Gray of the value of having diverse role models among CS teachers and professionals.