BHSU earns nearly $800,000 grant to expand computer science curriculum in state high schools

Author: BHSU Communications/Monday, September 25, 2017/Categories: College of Education and Behavioral Sciences, Community, Staff, Sanford

Black Hills State University was awarded a $785,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support South Dakota high schools in implementing computer science courses.

Dr. Ben Sayler, director of the Sanford Science Education Center and professor of physical science and mathematics at BHSU, serves as the project’s principal investigator. He says the new project “Expanding Pathways into Computer Science across South Dakota” will build upon previous work also funded by the NSF with an expanded focus: reaching rural regions and under-served students throughout the state including those on or near American Indian reservations. The project begins Oct. 1.

The new project grew from the University’s successful partnership with five school districts - Belle Fourche, Douglas, Lead-Deadwood, Rapid City, and Spearfish. Over the past two years, BHSU and its project partners worked with 10 high school teachers to implement a year-long computer science course. A total of 450 students in the Black Hills have now taken that course and continue to enroll annually. BHSU is on the cutting edge for computer science utilization in education. 

“Computer science is all around us. We spend so much time interacting with computers and mobile devices and there are excellent career opportunities in this field,” says Sayler. “We’re proud the NSF saw enough promise in our initial effort that they’ve awarded us additional funding to expand the program across the state and impact more students and teachers.”

BHSU has legacy of educating teachers and continues to graduate the highest number of education graduates of any university in South Dakota. Sayler says the connections and experience BHSU has working with teachers in STEM disciplines is especially helpful in supporting the addition of new computer sciences courses in school districts.

The project uses a nationally disseminated high school curriculum “Exploring Computer Science,” which includes six modules taught over the course of one academic year. Modules include: coding, analyzing large data sets, problem solving, human-computer interactions, and web design.  

While many high schools require a technology class before graduation, Sayler says computer science is more than simply learning how to use existing applications such as word processing and spreadsheet software; it focuses on the science behind computer programs and applications.

“When we began this work, not many schools in South Dakota had computer science courses. This curriculum is meant to be a focus on the science of computer science – the science behind what makes those computer programs and applications function,” says Sayler.

Sayler says this work is important because it fills a need in the state by providing students and teachers the opportunity to experience computer science content would not otherwise be exposed to. Especially important for this project, according to Sayler, is the professional development and network of support provided to teachers.

“Teachers don’t need to have a formal computer science background to be successful with this curriculum, and that's good because few teachers in South Dakota have a strong computer science background. We’ve worked with wonderful teachers from business, from math, and from science who've been willing to give it a try. They appreciate that they've got a project team giving them support,” says Sayler.

This summer, BHSU held a Summer Institute for teachers from across the state to work through the curriculum units, and to learn from those who've already been teaching it. An additional 20 teachers representing 14 school districts and 16 high schools came onboard this summer. Sayler says there's wonderful comradery among the teachers that will continue throughout the year as teachers keep in contact and support one another.

With the new funding, BHSU plans to work with teachers and administrators from an additional 20 South Dakota schools over the next three years. Partners in this effort include faculty from BHSU and South Dakota School of Mines and Technology; South Dakota GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), a joint effort of BHSU and South Dakota’s Office of Indian Education; and a nonprofit, Technology and Innovation in Education.

School districts interested in implementing the year-long computer science curriculum in their high schools should contact Sayler at Ben.Sayler@BHSU.edu or 605-642-6874.

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