URI professor: R.I. teachers key reason for state’s national reputation in computer science education

Victor Fay-Wolfe lauds more than 60 teachers for taking part in weeklong training

KINGSTON, R.I. — Aug. 8, 2019 — Christine Jones, a teacher at Newport’s Thompson Middle School, probably doesn’t see herself as a pioneer.

But Victor Fay-Wolfe, University of Rhode Island professor of computer science and one of the state’s leading advocates for computer science instruction in all schools, says it’s an apt title for Jones and about 60 other teachers from around the state who recently took part in a week of computer science training at the University.

“They came from all different disciplines, and I can’t say enough about their pioneer spirit,” Fay-Wolfe said. “These were math teachers and those from other disciplines who did not major in computer science in college. But they came in during their summer break to become better teachers and bring their enthusiasm for computer science to their classrooms.”

Christine Jones
LISTENING INTENTLY: Christine Jones, a teacher at Newport’s Thompson Middle School, listens to a presentation at Code.org at the University’s Kingston Campus. URI photo by Michael Salerno.

Fay-Wolfe, who is also on assignment with the Rhode Island Department of Education, was a keynote speaker during the weeklong training provided by Code.org at the University’s Kingston Campus. The training is part of URI’s K-12 Computer Science program and the CS4RI statewide initiative.

The professional development programs included training for two courses — Computer Science Discoveries, which is for students in grades 6 through 10, and Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles, for students in grades 9 through 12. Following the course, students in the advanced placement public high school classrooms will have the opportunity to earn free URI Concurrent Enrollment Credit.

The concurrent enrollment program at URI, in which high school students take URI courses and earn University credits while meeting their high school requirements, has experienced robust growth in the last three years. That is due in large part to the demand for computer science classes offered through URI. Of the 5,247 high school students who took courses in the program in the last three years, 2,969 of them were enrolled in computer science classes.

“In a real sense, these individuals become University students,” Fay-Wolfe said.

Whitney Biafore and Anna Stuart-Vieira
ENGAGED TEACHERS: Whitney Biafore, left, a teacher at Toll Gate High School in Warwick, and Anna Stuart-Vieira, a teacher at Dr Edward Ricci School in North Providence, participate in the Code.org training program at URI. URI photo by Michael Salerno.

At Thompson Middle School, Jones teaches children in grades 5 through 8 in the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines.

“I have always integrated computer science into my curriculum and this will be my third year in this role,” said the 13-year-teacher. “The Discoveries (course) training was wonderful.  While I hope to be able to integrate as much as possible into my classroom, I feel that what I learned will help me support my students who are interested in computer science. Prior to this course, I had little understanding of coding. I only understood how to use programs. This course definitely built my capacity as an educator.”

She also took to heart Fay-Wolfe’s message that teachers should engage with colleagues and administrators to advocate for computer science at all grade levels and in all disciplines.

“While I felt that computer science was important prior to hearing his presentation, he instilled a sense of urgency in promoting computer science for all. I will definitely be speaking to my administration about ensuring that all students at my school have access to all the computer science standards.”

During his presentation, Fay-Wolfe highlighted a half-dozen achievements to emphasize that Rhode Island is a national leader in computer science education:

  • 100 percent of traditional school districts offer computer science opportunities — the highest percentage in the country
  • Several high schools have every student taking a computer science course
  • 78 percent of Rhode Island public schools offer at least one advanced placement computer science course
  • More than 1,000 Rhode Island high school students obtained college computer science concurrent enrollment credit in the past academic year, the highest percentage in the country
  • 2,000 students attended the CS4RI summit at URI’s Ryan Center in December, the highest attendance at a computer science event in the country.

Fay-Wolfe also dispelled the notion that computer science is only coding and robotics. It also includes computer architecture, networks, graphics, theory of computation, operating systems, artificial intelligence, databases, algorithms and data structures. The subject also includes technology’s impact on society.

Whitney Biafore, a math teacher at Warwick’s Toll Gate High School, was being trained in the Computer Science Discoveries course. She is entering her 30th year of teaching and her third year of teaching computer science at Toll Gate.

“I was fortunate to be part of a group that went to Phoenix for Code.org training,” Biafore said. “Now it’s great that URI is hosting the training, which will continue throughout the fall and winter. This follow up is so helpful, and then to have the big CS4RI summit at URI is very exciting.”

“At the summit, students and teachers from different districts not only get to know and work with each, they work with URI students and faculty,” she said. “Our students also get exposed to University life, and what a large, dynamic University like URI can offer them.”