#290 – Computer Science in K–12 Education, with Kris Beck

Unpacking Education May 22, 2024 42 min

In this episode, we are joined by Kris Beck, the Director of Computer Science for Chicago Public Schools. Kris shares the exciting work they are doing to empower every student in their system with future-ready computer science (CS) skills and experiences. She explains how they have developed and grown their program, and she offers suggestions for how districts might go about starting a CS program in their schools.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

Every day, in every CPS STEM classroom, all STEM-powered students will activate and grow their problem-solving dispositions in explorations of natural and social phenomena, computational challenges, and design scenarios.

Chicago Public Schools’ Department of STEM, from their website

CS for All

“It’s important for people to realize every single company now is a tech company,” says our guest, Kris Beck. Because of this infusion of computer technology into nearly every field of employment, it’s important that all of our students have opportunities to gain exposure to computer science in our schools. Students who do not have these experiences will lack the opportunity knowledge that can open doors into potential career pathways. Kris describes offering CS as equity and civil rights issues. Throughout the episode, Kris shares her experiences in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) so that others can learn from her district’s journey and potentially build their own computer science programs. The following are a few highlights from our conversation:

  • About Our Guest: Kris Beck is the Director of Computer Science for Chicago Public Schools. Before serving in her current role, Kris worked in the technology field; taught science, math, and computer science; and worked on central teams for school districts.
  • A Large, Urban District: Chicago Public Schools is a large, urban school district, serving 488 elementary schools and 100 high schools.
  • Graduation Requirement: In 2016, CPS implemented a graduation requirement for computer science. This requirement has played a key role in ensuring that all students are exposed to CS. Kris says, “I think we’re still the only large, urban district that has a graduation requirement in computer science in high school.” She adds that this requirement helped them track the success of their work, saying, “It’s hard to measure ‘for all’ if you don’t have a good metric, and the metric we decided to go for was a graduation requirement.”
  • Future-Ready Skills: Kris says, “It’s not really about the tech. The tech changes. It’s about the kind of thinking [and] problem-solving that students learn how to do with technology: ‘When do I use a computer to help me solve a problem? When is that not appropriate?’” She adds, “The skill sets really have to be: being comfortable with technology, not being afraid of technology, being able to be creative with technology, and [using] it in a way that they either follow their passions and do something with it that way, or they get comfortable being problem-solvers and using the tech to help them.”
  • They’re All Tech Companies: Kris points out, “It’s important for people to realize, every single company now is a tech company. So students who come out of high school, students we teach now, are going to be doing jobs where we don’t know what tech skills they’re going to need to know or what the tools are going to be when they get out of school, even in 5 years, with AI and everything changing so quickly.”
  • Success Stories: In addition to adding the CS graduation requirement, Kris shares that teacher training has been one of their biggest successes. Because there is a shortage of CS teaching degree programs, CPS has had to develop their own CS teachers. Kris says, “We had to train up teachers from different disciplines, different content areas, different backgrounds, to be excited, comfortable, and ready to teach computer science in our schools.” In total, they trained nearly 400 elementary and 400 high school teachers in the area of computer science.
  • Challenges: Current challenges facing CPS include the lack of CS teachers, a lack of official policy, and the perception that there is not enough time to include CS programs in school curriculum. Kris says that she hears comments like, “I don’t know that we have time for computer science in the school day. We have so many other demands on us. Can we really do this right now?” She adds, “And without having state or district policy, it’s one of the things that gets pushed off the plate or off the table.”
  • Highlighting Successes: Kris explains that it’s “really, really important” to highlight their successes. They’ve implemented opportunities to share at several program levels: grade/team, school, and district. Team members are encouraged to share with each other, while schools and districts host showcases to highlight student work with a broader audience of community stakeholders. Kris says, “I don’t think we can assume that people know what it looks like.” She adds, “We’re very much about self-promotion. . . . Look at what our students can do if we provide them with the opportunities, and when you show people what that is, often, you get a lot of buy-in.”
  • Engaging Stakeholders: One thing that all districts, regardless of size, need to do is engage stakeholders in the conversation. Kris says, “The first thing you have to do is talk to the people that are in your district: the opinion makers, the families, the parents, the students. You have to talk to all those groups and learn what they think, what they believe, what they want to see, the opportunities they’d like to have, and I think you have to engage them in the process. I don’t see any shortcuts around that.”
  • More Than Funding: Local experiences in CPS have taught Kris that it takes more than funding to launch a successful CS program. She says, “We realized that just resources, just money, wasn’t enough to make computer science happen in these places because the community and the stakeholders didn’t know what it meant. They didn’t know what it would look like, or what they should do, or how they should start.” By bringing stakeholders together to see CS in action, CPS found that they could lay the foundation for building a program.
  • CS for All: Kris says, “I think we all share that in common, that our families want what’s best for their kids, and if they don’t have experience with it, it’s our job as the educators to provide them with that experience so that they can understand the value and the necessity for why they need this. And I really think this is an equity issue. Like in Chicago, we sort of said it’s a civil rights issue for our students. The tech world tends to be very White and male, and if our students, if our Black, and Brown, and young women are not a part of the tech world, then the solutions that the tech world is going to be creating will not be representative of the whole population. And I could say the same thing for rural areas, that tech tends to be in urban areas. And if our students from rural areas are not given access to computer science education, and this sort of technology, and all that brings—those opportunities—they’re going to be left out.”
  • Looking Ahead: Now that CPS has a graduation requirement and a solid foundation in providing CS for students, they are looking to identify gaps in students being served. Their current focus is on making sure that all of their diverse learners have access to CS experiences. This includes the 17% of their student population who currently have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).
  • Integrated Elementary Approach: Because they don’t have access to enough CS teachers at the elementary level, CPS is working to train core subject-area teachers to integrate CS opportunities into the classes that student are already taking. Kris poses the driving question for this undertaking: “Can we get all of our teachers—no matter their content area—and train them, so they are just comfortable and confident using the tools of computer science?” She believes that if they can, all students will have an opportunity to start using these CS and tech tools.
  • Positive Place: Kris says, “We’re in a very positive place, even though there’s a lot of work to do.”

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • What do you know about computer science?
  • What CS opportunities do your students have?
  • How might CS opportunities be provided to all students?
  • What is the value of CS education in a K–12 system?
  • What policy changes might encourage more CS exposure and development for K–12 students?

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