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Building Computer Science Education Capacity in Middle Schools: A University-District Partnership

Published in the EDULEARN2023 Conference Proceedings

Instruction in computer science (CS) and computational thinking instills students with fundamental skills that equip them to succeed in the 21st century and empower them to design creative solutions to problems facing their schools, their communities, and their world. Thus, expanding students’ access to computer science education (CSE) is a major priority of educational systems worldwide. In the US, these efforts are intentionally focused on broadening the participation of historically underrepresented groups, including students from economically and socially marginalized backgrounds. Many continue to be primarily focused on reaching high school students, although available research suggests that improving access to CSE in middle school can increase students’ interest, participation, and retention in CSE in high school and beyond.

However, significant variations exist in the capacity of middle schools to deliver intentional, consistent, and meaningful CSE as a function of institutional considerations (e.g., transportation, scheduling constraints, and curricular demands), available resources, teacher training, and characteristics of the communities they serve. In addition, established curricular and pedagogical norms for engaging students in CSE do not exist at the middle school level as they do in high school, presenting another barrier to expanding earlier access to CS. Therefore, it is imperative to provide schools with responsive supports as they develop, implement, and refine CSE programs that address their unique circumstances.

Many collaborative structures, such as research-practice partnerships, research alliances, and professional learning communities, can be powerful mechanisms for connecting educators with evidence-based practices, thereby building the capacity of their schools to deliver high quality CSE. Here, we describe the process used to establish and maintain a sustained university-district partnership within a broader, regional consortium of districts, united by the common goal of improving access to middle school CSE. With funding from the U.S. Department of Education, these efforts bring together educators, researchers, faculty, and private and public sector CS experts to (a) examine and assess the current state of CSE in participating schools, (b) identify opportunities that situate CSE with each school’s goals, resources, and infrastructure, (c) implement educational initiatives and innovations, making data-informed decisions at each stage, and (d) assess the short- and long-term impacts of their efforts, retracing steps when needed, and building on successes when possible. We then report findings from the ongoing evaluation of the partnership’s performance and impact, including perspectives from an array of stakeholders alongside programmatic considerations that drive the partnership’s progress, including those made in response to continued disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the insights gained from this experience.

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