Emily Thomforde is proof that people from all walks of life can have an impact on equitable computer science education. Previously the Computer Science Coordinator for the San Mateo County Office of Education, she’s now using her wide range of experience to help teachers, schools and districts implement CS education.
1) We hear you’ve been a huge champion of CS - can you tell us about your pathway?
I actually started in gaming! After getting a PhD in artificial intelligence in the UK, my husband and I went into game development. One of the jobs I had was to create a game for an online girls magazine. I thought it would be cool to make a playable version as well as a hackable version of the game. That led me to designing a video game curriculum for Hopscotch before returning home to the US.
I decided to volunteer with my local school’s CS program, but discovered they didn’t have one. I started one myself, and it slowly grew to K-8 CS classes across the district, then to starting a STEAM program and Makerspace at an elementary school, and eventually to the Maker Education Coordinator for the County Office of Education. I'd since learned to mitigate the intimidation factor of computer science by attaching it to the Maker movement, and managed to evolve my position into Maker Education and Computer Science Coordinator.
Now I’m consulting, supporting CS teachers, connecting them with each other and the CSTA or other professional learning networks, helping schools and districts implement CS, and more.
2) Tell us more about the work of CISC. Why are curriculum standards in CS important?
The Curriculum and Instruction Steering Committee (CISC) is a division of CCSESA and a Computer Science Subcommittee brings together many of the counties to guide CS implementation.. We’ve spent a lot of time defining what CS is, and how we can invite more people into wanting CS in their schools. We're really at a very early phase of implementation throughout the state, so most of the work is documenting the CS teaching and learning taking place, and sharing resources. I'm glad to turn over the reins to Sonal Patel of San Bernardino County.
One thing I love about the CA CS Standards is that they build in soft skills like being able to collaborate, communicate, recognize bias, and describe what something means to me and to society. Anyone can look up on Google how to code! Our teachers can play a role in creating awareness of CS, and show students how it's relevant to everyday life.
3) How has your work changed in light of emergency remote education?
As soon as COVID-19 hit, CS wasn’t a priority anymore. Health and safety takes precedence right now, but CS should be a priority in the long-run. With CISC we’re trying to lay the groundwork, educate ourselves, and put structures in place so that when CS becomes a priority again, we’ll be prepared.
There’s been a lot of focus on making sure every kid has a Chromebook at home and access to the Internet. But that’s only step one of ensuring CS for all. For us to really create CS for all, we need to define what CS means, and we need to be able to measure who has access to it. Right now very few students have access to CS. Giving all students access is going to be a multi-generational effort.
The pandemic has really made the digital divide visible. But it’s also shown a larger societal shift around CS and could set the tone for CS access in the future. When more students have access to a Chromebook as a main means of education, collaboration, communication, and access to information, the digital tools they’re using dictate how they interact with the world. As an example, instead of asking questions about which platforms should we use or what are the pros and cons of each app, we could be asking “how can we empower students to create a better tool that meets our communities’ needs?” Greater access to technology is the starting point.
This is also why we need computer science, because you can't just go through life being a consumer—it's either program or be programmed.
4) What is your vision for CS in California - and why is it important to center our conversations around equity in CS?
My vision is that computer science is considered basic education, and that CS for all means that computer science is not an extra or an add-on, or just for some kids. Computer science is a necessary skill in order to have the power to change the world.
All of our systems lock a certain part of the population out of access to that power. And they do it on purpose because then they get to keep the power. Education is the only thing that everyone gets, so it's the only avenue for putting that power into the hands of everyone.
But to do this and to recruit more CS teachers, we need to compensate them for the time they spend in training and prep. And, we need to teach more teachers computer science, so they can integrate it into what they’re already doing.
5) Can you give us an example where CS transformed learning for your students?
For several years I've run a drop-in coding club at my local library, and when I started getting high schoolers interested in volunteering, I suggested they start an organization of their own. In less than two years, the Bay Area Youth Computer Science Council has grown to ten members and two meetings a week, run four in-person learning events for kids, put together an online APCSA study group as a pandemic response, and hosted an online CS+Social Good speaker series.
They're now planning an inclusive hackathon for beginners and converting the recordings of their speaker series into a microcredential for teachers. They see how computer science can transform lives and they're taking action to improve access to CS education in their local communities. I couldn't be prouder of them.
6) In what ways has CSforCA been a resource for you and your colleagues?
I love the Equity Guide! I have a copy on my desk all day, and have extra copies in my bag, in case I ever encounter an administrator, board member, or any person who does decision-making. It’s not a guide for equity, it’s a guide for implementation, equitably. It’s the single most helpful document in my entire arsenal.
And shoutout to the data tool! I was able to use that to present a strategic CS implementation plan to our county school board as our external assessment of what we do.
The CSforCA coalition is also a great way for us all to show up and get involved. Now is the time for us all to do that so we can show our administrators that this should be a priority—even during a pandemic.