Investment in Computer Science Pays Off in Central Texas Schools

KLE Foundation grants help expand computer science education for hundreds of students

    Parmer Lane Elementary School teacher Maria Tovar teaches computational thinking concepts to her fourth-graders. At the completion of the KLE Foundation grant, Pflugerville ISD reported a total enrollment of 180 computer science students across seven courses offered. Credit: Photos by Damian Hopkins, TACC

    In an era of national divisions, here is a universally agreed-upon fact: Texans want Texas to remain a world leader in the innovation economy.

    To aid this mission, the KLE Foundation supports computer science (CS) education in Central Texas. In August 2019, the foundation partnered with WeTeach_CS to launch an ambitious project to boost diverse student participation in CS classes, awarding $250,000 for districts to design and implement a three-year plan to grow CS pathways from elementary to high school.

    “Given the growing emphasis and impact on computing and computational thinking across industries, it’s critical that we work collaboratively to increase access to computer science and computational thinking in school districts across Central Texas."
    The KLE Foundation

    “Given the growing emphasis and impact on computing and computational thinking across industries, it’s critical that we work collaboratively to increase access to computer science and computational thinking in school districts across Central Texas,” according to a statement from the KLE Foundation. “Pflugerville ISD had a lot of success using the grant, and we would love to see them become a leader in Central Texas STEM education.”

    Added Expanding Pathways in Computing (EPIC) Director Carol Fletcher: “The greatest challenge to providing CS learning opportunities to Texas students is not equipment or broadband but rather a shortage of teachers who have had an opportunity to learn CS themselves. There’s no substitute for a dedicated and well-prepared teacher to keep kids engaged and on track.” EPIC serves as the backbone organization for WeTeach_CS to help bring CS education to districts, schools, and educators in Texas and across the nation.

    Students in Ms. Tovar's class used computational thinking concepts to build a marshmallow tower using spaghetti as pillars. The exercise is designed to teach critical thinking and trial-and-error.

    Pflugerville Technology Integration Specialist Angela Matthews highlights positive outcomes like an increase in female and minority enrollment in CS courses. Matthews also notes that new Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards for Technology Applications (Tech Apps) require several STEM components and lauds Pflugerville for getting a head start on teaching these concepts.

    “Students were excited to learn about computational thinking and teachers were willing to try something new because they saw engagement in their classes,” Matthews said. “When students complain that they have to stop working on STEM projects and go to recess, that proves that effective, transformational learning is happening in the classroom.”

    Beginning in the 2024-2025 school year, the new TEKS standards are designed to aid students in their development of critical thinking skills. Tech apps “incorporate the study of digital tools, devices, communication, and programming to empower students to apply current and emerging technologies in their careers, their education, and beyond,” according to the Texas Education Agency.

    The grant period, which started in December 2019, ended at the completion of the 2021-2022 school year. After such a successful partnership with the foundation, WeTeach_CS is creating new professional development offerings for integration of elementary Tech Apps TEKS! Sign up for our newsletter and be notified when these new offerings are available!

    Pflugerville ISD boasted a total enrollment of 180 students across seven CS courses offered, including 36 female students and 78 students who identify as Hispanic/Latinx. In addition to computational thinking lessons integrated into fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms, a Girls Who Code club was formed at Parmer Lane Elementary School. An average of 20 girls attended club gatherings for 17 weeks. The district also hired an external consultant to support computational thinking lessons at its elementary campuses.

    San Marcos CISD, Harmony Public Schools, and IDEA Public Schools also were recipients.

    Parmer Lane Dual Language teacher Sandy Gonzalez used KLE grant funding to purchase Blue-Bot robots.

    Parmer Lane Dual Language teacher Sandy Gonzalez used the funding to purchase Blue-Bot robots and uses Scratch software to teach coding to fifth-graders.

    “Students love the collaborative nature of using the robots, being able to program them, and learn cause-and-effect aspects of computational thinking in real time,” said Gonzalez, now in her sixth year teaching dual language. “Schools didn’t have dual language options when I was in school. These lessons are optimal for students who aren’t speaking English at home to learn computational thinking.”

    Added Maria Tovar, who teaches fourth grade at Parmer Lane: “I’m intentional about including computational thinking terms like ‘algorithm’ and ‘integration’ into core subjects like Math and Science and explaining those concepts. Eventually, these students also will learn soft skills like collaboration, communication, and critical thinking to thrive in their careers. Me encanta enseñar ciencia de la computación! (I love teaching computer science!)”

    Students in Ms. Gonzalez's class use Blue-Bot robots to learn basic programming skills. The robots were programmed to navigate to a square and then stop, turn, or rotate 360 degrees.

    EPIC Partnership Coordinator Sheryl Roehl served as KLE grant director, working alongside teachers to provide resources and assistance throughout the grant period.

    “I’ve worked in teacher professional development for more than 30 years, so making a personal connection with teachers is important to me,” Roehl said. “Seeing these teachers educating the next generation of STEM students fills my heart with joy and happiness.”

    “We have to move past the notion that computing is limited to a small number of interested students in an elective model,” according to the Foundation. “Despite the benefits to students’ professional aspirations and personal lives, the current model of CS education only responds to students who were lucky enough to attend a small number of schools that have strong computing programs or who participate in computing programs outside of school via wealthy, informed parents.”

    Thanks to an impactful grant period, districts saw an increase in the number of students enrolled in CS courses, acquired much-needed resources to launch programs, and collaborated on insightful lessons in STEM topics. With the positive effects of new CS programs in place, district leaders hope to continue these programs for the foreseeable future.