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Governor Gina Raimondo via Twitter
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo

A unique partnership between Microsoft and Rhode Island aims to bring computer science classes to every high school in the state by the end of next year — a new step in an effort to put computer science in the same league as math and science in schools across the country.

The partnership was announced this morning by Microsoft and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, along with the University of Rhode Island, Brown University and the Rhode Island teachers’ union. It will leverage an existing program, sponsored by Microsoft, called Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS), which pairs tech professionals from a variety of companies with teachers in classrooms.

This partnership marks the first time that Microsoft will coordinate with government to establish a comprehensive, state-wide computer science program, said Mary Snapp, the Microsoft corporate vice president who leads Microsoft Philanthropies.

The program will start next school year, in the fall of 2016, and aims to have computer science classes in every high school in the state by December 2017.

“We think that computational thinking today for kids is as important as learning how to read was 100 years ago,” Snapp said in an interview with GeekWire. “It’s an issue that is far beyond Microsoft. It’s an issue far beyond a tech issue. It is basically an educational issue. It’s essentially digital literacy.”

Microsoft’s partnership with Rhode Island comes after a January proposal from President Obama to spend $4 billion on computer science education, evidence of a growing national focus on the importance of technology education in schools.

Under the new partnership, Microsoft will provide the infrastructure for computer science education, while the government of Rhode Island will reach out to others to donate time and support and will connect TEALS to schools, Snapp said. Because TEALS is volunteer-driven, states and school districts will not need to spend their own money to have the program in their classrooms.

“The schools obviously need support from their districts and from the state for computers and potentially textbooks,” Snapp said. “But beyond that, it’s largely a volunteer effort where we team teach with a teacher who is already enrolled so that the goal would be that the teacher can continue to go forward at that school at the end of two years.”

Mary Snapp, head of Microsoft Philanthropies, via Microsoft.
Mary Snapp, head of Microsoft Philanthropies

TEALS draws volunteer computer scientists from more than 200 companies, Snapp said, with three quarters of those volunteers from outside Microsoft. Rhode Island will be a chance for TEALS to extend its reach to new partner companies, she said. Rather than companies like Google, Facebook, and Expedia — who are TEALS partners elsewhere — the program will target companies with large IT departments in the state, like Fidelity Investments and CVS, Snapp said.

Schools have a few options for how to work with their volunteers. The computer scientists can teach classes side-by-side with teachers, providing the curriculum and training teachers in computer science education; they can work as TAs in the classroom, offering one-on-one assistance to computer science students; and they can also reach teachers and students in rural areas with virtual instruction via Skype, a method that now makes up 10 percent of TEALS instruction. Regardless of method, the goal is the same: to create sustainable computer science education by readying teachers to handle computer science instruction themselves into the future.

Established in 2009 by Microsoft employee Kevin Wang, TEALS became part of Microsoft’s YouthSpark initiative, which aims to increase global access to computer science education. In September, TEALS made a commitment to increase its progress in states where TEALS already existed and to expand beyond the 17 states in which the program operates currently. Raimondo approached Microsoft later that fall to discuss a potential partnership to put TEALS in every Rhode Island high school, Snapp said.

“We’ve done outreach with schools and volunteers, but in this instance, we’re working side by side with the governor to develop a program that scales very, very quickly,” Snapp said. “The difference is the collaboration with the educational department and with the governor’s office right from the beginning and the vast scale that we will take with it. It’s an example of a coalition that we haven’t done before.”

The public coalition will involve government officials at the federal, state, and local level; schools and educators; and companies with computer scientists that want to volunteer. It’s a partnership that Microsoft hopes will provide a model for other states looking to bring computer science education to their students. Rhode Island will be a pilot for how TEALS can work to establish nationwide computer science education in the coming years, Snapp said.

TEALS also aims to bring more diversity into computer science. Currently, TEALS reaches a number of Title 1 schools; 40 percent of TEALS students are from these underserved areas, Snapp said. Also, a quarter of students in TEALS classes last year were women, and 28 percent were students of color, she said.

Right now, TEALS is in 17 states. Snapp projects that in 3 years, TEALS will be in 33 states, though still not in every school in those states. Microsoft hopes that the program will continue to expand from there.

“We would like to have computer science programs in every school in every state across the nation,” Snapp said. Although a variety of different programs and approaches will be needed to reach that goal, she said, “We think TEALS is a really innovative way to get there.”


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