Addressing the STEM Teacher Drought

VIP tour of the Computer History Museum

Embark Labs Teachers getting a VIP tour of the Computer History Museum

Recently, there are two topics circulating within the edtech community that I find interestingly at odds with each other.

The first is the announcement from the Mayor of New York City, the largest school district in the country, that all students beginning with elementary to high school will have access to computer science instruction within the next ten years. It’s an exciting and audacious goal, and one that I foresee many other regions/districts taking on in the coming months. (We have already seen similar declarations from Chicago and San Francisco.) While there are many challenges in implementing an initiative like this effectively, what stands out is the massive effort to prepare and support the number of educators needed to make this work.

The city (NYC) estimates that it will have to train close to 5,000 teachers to meet its pledge to provide the instruction at every level of schooling. Some might teach computer science exclusively, while others might be traditional elementary school teachers who will learn to incorporate it into the curriculum.

This leads directly into the other piece of news making the rounds on the edtech wire– we have a serious STEM teacher shortage. Earlier this month The Education Trust West released this detailed report on the Cracks and Disparities in California’s Math and Science Teacher Pipeline. While this report focused on CA, we know this is a problem facing many districts and states.

EdTrust-West Infographic

So, while many of us are excited by the prospect of better preparing our kids for the future by introducing them to computer science and coding, who exactly is going to teach them?

This challenge is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about while building Embark Labs. We began as a program for kids to learn computer science in a hands-on, project based approach. While we create vibrant learning experiences for kids from diverse backgrounds to learn together, we quickly realized that in order to bring this program to more students we have to work more closely with schools and educators. Through an amazing partnership with the CalStateTeach Teacher Preparation program we are able to train pre-service teachers on how to introduce computer science (and more so, computational thinking) in a project-based approach. By working with teachers as they are getting their credentials we demonstrate how to build a climate of inquiry and culture of collaboration within their classrooms on day one.

During this past summer we trained 20 teachers and are on track to more than double that next summer. While Embark Labs provides educators with a pedagogically sound curriculum for teaching kids computer science, our bigger focus is to instill a level of confidence in teachers, building on their existing classroom skills and ability to differentiate instruction.

I’m hopeful as we see more announcements like those from NYC, SF and Chicago, that we will also see more teacher preparation programs think strategically about how they are preparing teachers to meet the demands of the modern classroom.

Fewer Tools. More Teaching: A Practical Approach to Improving K12 CS Education

ExploreCS at Computer History Museum

ExploreCS course at the Computer History Museum

These days it seems like one of the most popular solutions to preparing kids for the future is teaching them to code. While we are bombarded with statistics about the gap between the number of computing jobs and qualified candidates, we do not have much visibility (ie. data)  into how schools are addressing this challenge.

To remedy this, in 2013 Google commissioned Gallup to research the state of computer science education at K-12 schools across the US. Last week they released their findings in the landscape study, Searching for Computer Science: Access and Barriers in US K12 Education. This report is part of Google for Education’s ongoing efforts to improve computer science instruction through research-based strategies.

Many media outlets covered the release of the results, choosing the fairly obvious headline that there is a disconnect between what parents want schools to teach and what schools actually teach. To anyone who has spent any time thinking about K12 curriculum, it is known that most of those decisions are driven by standardized tests, which don’t include CS. However, the real issue is that schools and teachers do not feel adequately prepared to teach computer science in an effective way.

Conflating Computer Science and Coding

First I must call out the common misconception that CS and coding are the same subject. While writing code is one aspect of computer science, there is much more to CS than coding. That said, it is not surprising to me that the report finds that,

“even in schools where computer science learning opportunities exist, the curriculum does not necessarily include programming/coding.”

My frustration with the modern ‘everyone should learn to code’ movement is the narrow focus on teaching kids to code, rather than computational thinking. Just focusing on coding misses the larger point that computer science as a whole can be an authentic and effective way to teach kids how to think and become creative problem-solvers. Simply copying and pasting lines of code or dragging blocks around a screen does not develop critical thinking skills.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

Amidst all the facts and findings, what struck me is that,

“Few principals and superintendents mention a lack of computer equipment and software as the main reason their schools do not offer computer science.”  

In software-centric Silicon Valley, it is easy for many to gloss over this point. But we shouldn’t. If most entrepreneurs abide by the mantra, “build something people want,” then anyone working on education products, especially related to instruction, should hear that schools are saying they do not want or need more software to solve this problem.

The real need (ie. opportunity) is finding qualified teachers and helping them effectively use all the tools we already have.

“Forty-two percent of principals and 73% of superintendents say that there are no teachers available at their schools/in their districts with the necessary skills to teach computer science. The inability to hire and/or train teachers to lead computer science classes also prevents many schools/districts from offering computer science;”

This is largely due to the reality that someone with a CS degree is not very likely to go into teaching. The data reinforces that CS education in K12 schools is a people and implementation problem, not a software problem.

The fact that many teachers do not feel supported is actually one of the factors that’s driving a broader, national teacher shortage. According to a recent Washington Post article, educators share that the main reasons they are leaving the industry are “low pay, insufficient classroom resources, and so many testing requirements and teaching guidelines that they feel they have no flexibility and too little authentic instructional time.” (Again with those darn testing requirements.)

Girls-Only ExploreCS in Menlo Park

Girls-Only ExploreCS course in Menlo Park

Authentic Instructional Time

Teaching computer science has the potential to create engaging learning experiences for both educators and students. This belief drives much of our thinking at Embark Labs. Our project-based approach to introducing students to computer science focuses on creating a culture of collaboration in the classroom. In addition to our innovative curriculum we provide educators with in-person professional development and on-going coaching so that they have the resources and support they need to teach CS effectively.

Through a growing partnership with the CalStateTeach Teacher Preparation Program we are equipping new educators with the curriculum and the confidence they need to teach computer science and coding to kids in a hands-on, project-based way.
To learn more about our programs, visit

(Thanks to Sharan Ghai for reading a draft of this post.)