Research News

Helping students thrive in a digital world

Dual-enrollment computer science classes in Texas provide an on-ramp to STEM careers

How do we provide students with the digital and computational skills they need to succeed in 21st century careers? How can we motivate students to study computer science?

One way to do so is to offer college credit to high school computer science students. The University of Texas (UT) at Austin has been developing a network of partnerships with Texas school districts in order to do just that.

Called Project Engage, the program increases access to computer science in high school, particularly for girls and under-represented minorities; increases college readiness of Texas high school students and addresses the shortage of high school computer science teachers in this increasingly popular field.

Project Engage achieves its goals by offering school districts the ability to deliver a Computer Science Principles course called "Thriving in Our Digital World." Unlike lecture-based classes, which relegate students to the role of passive recipients of instruction, Project Engage encourages students to actively learn by solving problems.

The course exposes students to big ideas in computer science that exist across disciplinary boundaries while developing many important college-readiness skills such as critical thinking, communication skills and teamwork skills.The course was designed by faculty and educators at the UT Austin Computer Science Department with support from the National Science Foundation and OnRamps, UT Austin's dual-credit college-readiness initiative.

"Thriving in Our Digital World" is aligned with Texas College and Career Readiness Standards and the expectations of leading research universities. It offers high school and community college students the opportunity to adapt to the rigors of college coursework while earning college credit from UT Austin or any other public college in Texas.

In addition, the course reaches a more diverse audience than traditional AP computer science in keeping with the goals of Project Engage.


Thriving in Our Digital World

AP Computer Science

















(Thriving in a Digital World attracts a diverse population of students as seen in the comparison above.)

"Our country is facing a bit of a crisis," said Calvin Lin, a professor of computer science at The University of Texas and lead researcher for the project. "The huge demand for CS graduates is dramatically increasing the demand for high school CS teachers, but at the same time this demand is driving up the salaries for programmers, making it increasingly difficult to attract new CS teachers at the K-12 level. We need to find innovative ways to train new CS teachers, including methods that train in-service teachers who are not currently teaching computer science."

To prepare teachers to offer "Thriving in Our Digital World," Project Engage offers its partners professional development in a summer institute that focuses on both course content and pedagogy. These teachers receive on-going support from an online learning environment and additional professional development throughout the year.

Of this year's nine, new, high school teachers in the Austin Independent School District, four have not previously taught computer science.

Westlake High School teacher Paula McKinney, a veteran AP computer science teacher, who now partners with Project Engage, commended the impact "Thriving in Our Digital World" had on her students, stating: "I had one student who didn't really know what the course was about and maybe didn't even expect to get anything from it. Her mother recently emailed me and told me that she's really considering this as a career, where she never would have before."

Project Engage is currently being implemented at thirteen Texas high schools, with the goals of eventually scaling this effort to several hundred Texas high schools and replicating the effort in other states through the university's UTeach Institute.

"The lack of computer science courses in high schools is a serious problem, so we're excited to address this issue," Lin said. "We're going to need to do much more, but this is a great start."