In August 2016, a group of New York City teachers participated in the first Relay Summer Coding Institute, a one-week intensive program focused on computer science pedagogy and content. The Institute was a pilot program designed to prepare more teachers to offer coding classes and clubs at their schools.
The program was led by Allison Johnson, an award-winning computer science teacher at North Star Academy in Newark, New Jersey. Johnson has an impressive track record of teaching STEM courses in urban schools: The first year that Johnson, also a math teacher, launched an AP Computer Science course at North Star, which serves 95% students of color, her students tied the national average passing rate on the exam—effectively closing the opportunity gap (milkeneducatorawards.org).
The need for high quality computer science education, such as the AP course offered by Ms. Johnson, that can prepare diverse students for new opportunities in a growing industry is critical: There are currently more than 500,000 open computer science jobs in the country, and, last year, only about 40,000 students graduated prepared to fill those positions (CODE.org). Equally problematic for schools and for future employers is the lack of diversity among computer science students. In 2016, only 3,761 students in New York took the AP Computer Science exam, and the majority of those students were white or Asian males: Only 25% of students who completed the AP exam were females, and only 15% were black or Hispanic (CODE.org).
At least 10,000 additional computer science teachers are needed to serve in schools across the U.S. and, in particular, at urban schools, in order to make high quality coding instruction accessible to diverse students (nsf.gov). The Relay Summer Coding Institute was offered free to NYC teachers who sought to advance their computer science skills.
The Relay Approach: Model What Computer Science Instruction Looks Like
The Relay Institute convened teachers of various experience and grade levels to observe great computer science teaching in action and learn how to deliver effective computer science instruction. Nearly 70% of the participants had little to no experience coding, and they were equally split among elementary, middle, and high school placements. While most computer science programs are content-heavy “bootcamps” focused on learning how to code, the Relay program placed a major emphasis on pedagogy—strategies for how to teach computer science.
Teachers studied the structures of what it looks like to actually teach computer science in an urban classroom and provide students with effective scaffolding and support, while learning the basics of programming languages Scratch and Python. During the first half of the Institute, teachers participated in computer science lessons from the perspective of students. Later in the week, they had the opportunity to immediately apply what they had learned by practicing leading a lesson with high school students.
“Having time to figure things out and go through what any new learner to [computer science] would go through helped me to really think about differentiating instruction for my students,” said Geneal Chichester, an 11th grade chemistry teacher at Bronxdale High School and participant in the Relay Summer Coding Institute.
This winter, a subset of teachers who participated in the Summer Coding Institute returned to Relay New York to share their experiences implementing computer science instruction at their schools. They got support planning for the remainder of the school year, and they deepened their knowledge of coding content and teaching techniques alongside a new group of about 50 computer science teachers, building a “relay” of computer science educators in the city.
“I was so impressed by how much our teachers were able to learn in just one week,” said Allison Johnson, lead instructor for the Relay Summer Coding Institute. “We designed the curriculum around fundamental programming concepts, but also tried to integrate as many collaborative and engaging activities as possible to maintain enthusiasm and to show teachers what this could look like back in their classrooms.”
In the long term, Relay hopes to be one part of the solution toward increasing the number of K-12 computer science courses offered and ensuring that more diverse students, particularly girls and students of color, gain coding skills. Providing teachers with the teaching strategies, content knowledge, and confidence to deliver computer science instruction effectively the first time is an important step toward achieving that vision.