SHERIDAN — Computers and technology have become consistent, more prominent aspects of education. As a result, Wyoming is in the process of figuring out how to give students the tools needed to learn and adapt in an increasingly tech-driven world.
In its March budget session, the Wyoming Legislature passed a law adding computer science and computational thinking to the state educational program. The law states that beginning July 1, a computer science course can count as a science course for high school graduation requirements. It also states that computer science and computational thinking standards have to be implemented statewide by the beginning of the 2022-23 school year. The Legislature did not approve any specific funds for the process.
To help develop those standards, employees from the Wyoming Department of Education spoke to community members Wednesday evening at the Sheridan County School District 2 administrative offices.
WDE director of standards and accountability Laurie Hernandez and math/health education consultant Jill Stringer explained that a computer science standards review committee will consist of about 40 members, who should be determined next week.
There will also be four groups to focus on specific grade-level ranges: kindergarten through second, third through fifth, sixth through eighth and ninth through 12th. The groups will include a few review committee members, teachers, parents, community members and business professionals, among others.
The WDE is in the process of visiting all 48 Wyoming school districts to talk with administrators about their current status regarding computer science and hear public input about the development of state standards. That is the first step of eventually having standards ready by 2022.
The standards review committee will meet beginning this summer and two to four times over the next two years to determine a standards proposal. The proposal will then be sent to the Wyoming State Board of Education for review, then it will receive public input. Any changes made will be reviewed and approved by the state board. Then there will be more time — at least 45 days — for additional public comments about the proposal, changes will be made and the standards will finally be reviewed by the governor. Hernandez said it will likely take 18 to 24 months from the time the standards proposal is written to the time it is ultimately approved.
Hernandez and Stringer said the WDE’s first goal is defining what computer science means for Wyoming students. Hernandez said that may include making a list of what does and doesn’t fall under the computer science umbrella.
Ryan Fuhrman, Sheridan Junior High School seventh-grade science teacher and Wyoming State Board of Education member, said he likes keeping the word “agile” in mind when thinking about computer science because technology evolves so quickly. Fuhrman added that the standards framework could almost be looked at as a framework of continuous learning.
Similarly, Stringer said standards will likely be broad, leaving room for instructional flexibility. She added that the key is for educators across the state to agree on foundations an instructor must have when teaching computer science. However, getting consensus on those foundations could prove challenging, she said.
Stringer added that Wyoming is one of 20 states around the country working on computer science standards. Eleven states have already developed those standards.
Sue Belish, vice chair of the Wyoming State Board of Education and former Sheridan County School District 1 superintendent, said she hopes the committee will consider how to teach different ages of children, saying that computational thinking could be integrated into all elementary classes and standalone computer science courses can be offered in middle school and high school.
Belish also said she has a fear that only coding will be taught in computer science courses.
“Coding is not the answer for everything,” Belish said.
Stringer agreed and said coding is generally considered a small part of computer science curriculum.
SCSD1 curriculum director Sara McGinnis said adding another content area to the nine already in place — language arts, math, science, social studies, fine and performing arts, foreign language, health education, physical education and career/vocational training — could cause elementary teachers to rush through lesson plans so they can squeeze in all of the necessary topics. Adding a 10th content area adds to stress and anxiety, especially for elementary instructors who teach most or all topics, McGinnis noted.
Stringer said there have been talks about eventually combining health education and physical education into one content area to keep the number at nine, but nothing has been finalized.
Stringer said the amount of teachers who will do the work to become certified to teach computer science classes will depend on school districts. Hernandez said most school districts are already teaching something related to computer science. That includes the three school districts in Sheridan County, which offer various levels of computer-related classes at their schools and through Sheridan College.
The WDE employees said some school districts will probably need to purchase additional computers and devices, therefore additional bandwidth. However, Hernandez added that most schools should be pretty well-prepared because all of this year’s standardized state tests were done online.
In terms of misconceptions during their travels across the state, Hernandez and Stringer said some people think the new law means that every student has to take a computer science course every year, which is not true. Computer science courses must be offered in all school districts, but not every student has to take a class each year. Also, every district can choose how to best provide the classes.
McGinnis asked if the Legislature will provide funding for computer science once the date for implementing standards gets closer. The WDE employees said they were not sure, throwing another wrench in the works.
Many unknowns exist, but the Wednesday meeting was a small step in the beginning phase of a lengthy process to modernize Wyoming K-12 education.