A new program based in Northeast Wisconsin aims to increase the number of teachers who are certified to teach computer science and help address the demand for those classes in the state.

Ultimately, boosting the number of CS-licensed teachers also will help get the next generation of techies ready to meet the skyrocketing growth in information technology roles in Wisconsin.

The NEW Digital Alliance and CESA 7’s Computer Science Talent Ecosystem for Youth (CSTEY) program have launched a first-of-its-kind computer science licensure cohort. The group, made up of 14 middle and high school teachers, provides both instruction and support while the teachers work toward Computer Science 405/1405 certification. The cohort started this fall and will culminate in a licensure practice test in April or May.

The participating teachers are from the Milwaukee area, Superior and Northeast Wisconsin.

In the past five years, the state of Wisconsin has seen only about eight teachers graduate college specifically with a license to teach computer science, says Kim Iversen, founding director of the NEW Digital Alliance.

“With 421 public school systems in the state, that’s not nearly enough to cover the need that’s out there,” Iversen says. 

Additionally, Code.org indicates that only about 54 percent of high school districts in Wisconsin are teaching computer science classes. “We’re not doing a great job,” Iversen says. “If you think about a school report card, if you get 54 percent in a class, you’re failing.”

Beyond that, only about half of those programs have teachers who are licensed to deliver content at a reasonable level, she says. That means those classes might be focused more on digital citizenship, such as how to stay safe on the internet.

This summer, Iversen and Amy Bires, the Microsoft TEALS (Technology, Education and Literacy in Schools) regional manager in central and Northeast Wisconsin and program manager for CESA 7’s CSTEY, decided to partner to work on the issue.

Through the organization CompuScholar, Iversen and Bires built the program around the self-guided curriculum, adding modules and support to help ensure teachers finish the program, which takes about a school year. 

One of those components is a monthly meeting for networking and a support system, as well as bringing in regional IT workers as guest presenters. The sessions include in-person visits to IT departments at Northeast Wisconsin companies, a day at the UW-Oshkosh Cybersecurity Center of Excellence and a cybersecurity class.

Giving teachers a comprehensive look at computer science will help them find ways to develop programs that get students engaged and excited, Bires says.

One recent session featured instructors and students from area technical colleges. Another brought teachers into the IT department of Secura Insurance. The idea is to make connections so teachers can have a source for guest speakers in the classroom, Iversen says.

“It helps the teachers understand the bigger picture of IT and the next steps for their students,” Iversen says. 

The curriculum can be completed at the teacher’s convenience and requires about a two- or three-hour per week time commitment depending on experience. Some of the participating teachers are starting without a background in IT, Iversen said.

While there are other opportunities for teachers to get licensed in computer science, they are expensive and require a significant time commitment.

Bires, who was a business and information technology teacher for 16 years prior to joining TEALS, understands firsthand the limited options for teachers to meet the CS teaching requirements. She started her pathway to CS licensure through the Milwaukee Tech Education Center and is now participating in the program with the pilot cohort. 

The program is free for teachers except for the cost of traveling to the onsite visits, and Microsoft will reimburse the cost of the Praxis exam for teachers who successfully complete it. Additionally, the alliance has partnered with UW-Oshkosh and applied for workforce innovation grants to help fund additional cohorts.

Iversen and Bires hope to grow the program and develop the content to meet the need for knowledge in areas such as cybersecurity and data analytics. 

“I think there’s this misconception about what computer science is,” Bires says. “A lot of people are thinking programming (is) staring at a screen all day, typing line by line with code. And that’s not what it is. There are so many different avenues.”