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First-time STEM teachers get crash course at summer trainings

Kids in Delaware have been trying things like computer coding at STEM education camps this summer. But they're not the only ones honing in on science, technology, engineering and math during the break. Teachers are also getting ready for first-run STEM classes next year.


The new courses will cover material that might already be familiar to some students – but that’s brand-new to many of their teachers.


Delaware Public Media's Annie Ropeik visited one of a series of trainings, where educators from Delaware and beyond were getting a crash course in computer science.


In a big, airy ballroom at Delaware State University, about 50 schoolteachers are sitting in groups of three and four, waiting to be called on. They’ve just finished drawing up colorful posters about education and computer science, and trainer Gail Chapman is trying to get them to do some reflecting.


Chapman: How did working with the computational practices impact the learning that happened in this lesson? [silence] … Yeah. Teacher: I never thought of doing something like that and I really loved that idea…


This whole training is meant to reflect the ups and downs of the classroom. The teachers are learning new activities that’ll get kids working with computer science and with each other, no matter their experience level. And for some, like Lindsey Agnello, it’s a first brush with the material.


"I’m obviously very overwhelmed, but we’re here at this training because this is a brand-new computer science curriculum," she says. "And it’s actually laid out so our students don’t have to know a lot of what we normally think of as computer science -- they’re focusing on problem-solving skills and collaboration."


Agnello teaches in Western Maryland, and she’s moving from lower-grade lab science to high school computer science next year. Her district and many others, including those in Delaware, are implementing new "Next Generation" science standards next year as part of the Common Core. And the computer science element is scary for some. Next to Agnello is David Foster, a school librarian in the Dominican Republic who's also teaching technology next year.


"To tell you the truth, I was intimidated by the whole idea of -- I'm gonna have to do this, because I’ve never programmed," he says. "I didn't really feel that confident about being able to learn how to do it."

"There's a confidence level that needs to be built and recognize that it's okay to be the teacher and not have all the answers."


He says this curriculum is challenging' -- but 'doable. It's called Exploring CS, designed by UCLA and funded by the National Science Foundation. It aims to set up the thinking skills kids will need before they start to code, using hands-on activities like one these teachers just did. They designed posters of basic websites with spaces to swap in different HTML tags – like a coding mad-lib.

Gerriann Houser designed that activity for this curriculum. She’s a 21-year-old education student at the University of Puerto Rico, which is translating the new material into Spanish.

"It’s harder to prepare a class knowing that most of them have experience and there’s another few that don’t know what they’re doing," she says. "So we decided to create an activity where they can all participate and work together so you wouldn’t have a disadvantage."

Exploring CS is especially targeted at groups who usually steer clear of computer science – like girls and minorities. And trainer Gail Chapman is tasked with passing it on to their teachers, many of whom are moving over from other subjects.


"There’s a confidence level that needs to be built and recognize that it’s okay to be the teacher and not have all the answers," she says. "And that doesn’t mean we don’t want teachers to eventually learn all the content that's part of the course and more, because as a teacher you want to be able to bring in outside knowledge ... but it turns out that in computer science, because it spans so many different disciplines, that outside knowledge can actually take a lot of different forms."


But even those with a technology background say this stuff is highly accessible. Patti Mooney is a computer science teacher at MOT Charter High in Middletown, and the third member of the group we heard from earlier.

"We need to learn computer science because we need to have a back-up. This is kind of where the future's going."

"I really like all the steps that precede introducing HTML. You've already learned how to work together, you're understanding the idea of importance and value in the planning phase … and getting it right the first time isn't necessarily the point, it's how you got there, and how you could correct," she says. "If you had to learn that at the same time as you're learning syntax, it can be very overwhelming for a student who that's not their natural bent."


Exploring CS is also aimed at getting educators on board with the direction their field is heading. STEM is designed to prepare students for a changing job market – and Agnello, from Maryland, says it’s exactly the same for teachers.


"There were a lot of teachers at a conference I went to last week, that were like, 'Hey, we're business teachers, we don't know where our jobs are going to be two years from now. We need to learn computer science because we need to have a back-up.' This is kind of where the future's going," she says. "So a teacher like me, I'm going from teaching lab science, to a teacher like Patti who's had a lot of experience teaching computer science -- it's accessible to us as well. We're gonna be teaching the same thing, and our training is completely different."


Computer science is just one so-called 'pathway' that Delaware is expanding for its students next year. The state has also funded new classes in health, biomedicine, manufacturing and other areas. They’re hosting more trainings like this through the summer to get teachers ready in time for the first day.


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