Computer Science for Rhode Island Brings Innovation to Every Classroom

Chief Innovation Officer Richard Culatta takes the stage at the recent launch of the CS4RI initiative.

Chief Innovation Officer Richard Culatta takes the stage at the recent launch of the CS4RI initiative.

When the news about R.I. Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Computer Science for Rhode Island (CS4RI) initiative hit the airwaves, papers and social media last week, Rhode Island celebrated its launch of a statewide K-12 computer science education initiative. High-profile partners in this initiative include Code.org, Microsoft Corp., Project Lead the Way and Amica Mutual Insurance.

What Rhode Islanders may not have realized is that CS4RI was the first initiative of RIC Foundation’s Chief Innovation Officer Richard Culatta.

The initiative will enable every public school in Rhode Island – from elementary to high school – to offer computer science classes by December 2017.

The need for this initiative is critical in the Ocean State, according to the latest 10-year projections from the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, which predicts more than 4,000 openings in computer and math jobs in the state. Yet, Culatta said, “Our data show that only one percent of Rhode Island public high school students are currently enrolled in computer science courses.” To ensure that a prepared workforce will exist for these job openings in the future, Rhode Island needs to address its technological skills gap now, he said.

A number of CS4RI partners agree.

“Digital technology is democratizing access to knowledge and opportunity at a rapid pace, making computational thinking and problem-solving skills critical to every job in the future,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said.

Code.org CEO Hadi Partovi added that Rhode Island has joined “a short list of states leading the country in embracing computer science.”

Referring to the widespread use of smartphones and computers among the younger population, Amica Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer Peter Moreau stated, “Today’s students are exposed to technology immediately.” Moreau said he hopes CS4RI encourages more students to grow their familiarity with technology into future careers in the field.

Located in Roberts Hall, the Office of Innovation at Rhode Island College is moving forward on a number of coalition-building and professional development activities to support the larger CS4RI initiative. Many of these activities already involve Rhode Island College partners, while others hope to get additional assistance from the RIC community.

Rhode Island cannot roll out a comprehensive program of computer science, however, if its educators are not prepared to teach computer science. A recent Office of Innovation and Rhode Island Department of Education survey of Rhode Island educators interested in computer science revealed that the majority of respondents desire related professional development opportunities. That is why the Office of Innovation is partnering with global education company General Assembly this summer to offer a one-week computer science boot camp specifically for Rhode Island public high school teachers. A pilot program, the boot camp represents the first time that the highly regarded IT training company is directing its attention specifically toward teacher education. Facilitating this initiative is RIC’s Office of Professional Development and Continuing Education.

“The concept behind embedding the Office of Innovation on the RIC campus is to create a mutually beneficial exchange of ideas and expertise between my team and the college community,” said Culatta. “We are delighted to be partnering with RIC on the General Assembly pilot, which we believe to be a high-energy, high-impact program.”

The Office of Innovation will work in partnership with the RI STEM Center at Rhode Island College and the Rhode Island Department of Education to manage implementation of the CS4RI initiative and to engage schools in the process of identifying the best computer science program options for their students.

The Office of Innovation is also teaming with FabNewport for a separate K-8 teacher professional development program. FabNewport is known among the East Bay community for its work in STE[A]M education. The new innovative partnership, set to launch this summer and to continue throughout the school year, will expand the group’s presence by offering computer-coding education across the state and at a reduced rate.

Lastly, the office is also in talks about an advance-level training for Rhode Island educators this summer. This collaborative initiative with the college and the Computer Science Teachers Association of Rhode Island would include project-based learning opportunities for teachers using AppInventor, ALICE, Star Logo NOVA and Python.

While these initiatives are focused on helping existing teachers gain the tools they need to connect students with learning opportunities in the technology field, the Office of Innovation and the Feinstein School of Education and Human Development are also interested in imbuing technology expertise in the next generation of educators. Pre-service training would target current RIC education majors and could incorporate the latest methodology and technology tools into both the classroom and the student teaching experience.

Culatta and his team are actively seeking input from the campus community regarding service and pre-service educator technology training. Faculty, staff and students interested in participating in a brainstorm session this spring should contact Denise Males at dmales@ric.edu.

In addition, the Office of Innovation plans to create learning experiences for current RIC students interested in helping redesign government so it is more responsive to the needs of its citizens. Students interested in internship opportunities for the next academic year should also contact Denise Males at dmales@ric.edu.

Taken as a whole, these innovative initiatives should set the stage for teaching environments that are plugged into Rhode Island’s technology and workforce needs.

“Our kids deserve the best opportunities in the 21st-century tech-driven economy, so we need to do everything we can to help them get ahead by developing skills that matter,” said Raimondo.

RIC President Nancy Carriuolo added, “RIC has a strong track record of graduating excellent teachers. The CS4RI initiative gives our education alumni and our student teachers valuable opportunities to increase their technology skills and to foster the same skills in Rhode Island’s public school children.”