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Colorado Teacher of the Year advocates for equity in computer science studies

December 19, 2017 Updated: December 21, 2017 at 9:15 am
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photo - Colorado's 2017 Teacher of the Year Sean Wybrant. Courtesy photo.
Colorado's 2017 Teacher of the Year Sean Wybrant. Courtesy photo. 

As his year of being Colorado's top-dog teacher winds down, Sean Wybrant said it took him a while to develop his "platform."

After months of wrangling with what message he wanted to impart as Colorado's 2017 Teacher of the Year, Wybrant realized he didn't have to go far to find it.

The kids in his technology classroom at Palmer High School in Colorado Springs School District 11 supplied the answer.

The former English teacher, who for the past five years has taught in Palmer High's digital media studies department, has been advocating for computer science as an equity issue.

He's talked with state education officials and others who have the power to effect change and hopes to see improvements.

"There aren't many aspects of our lives that aren't touched by technology - cars, Keurig machines, the electrical grid, computers - and we need everybody to have a better understanding of how software and hardware work in order to prepare kids to create the future," Wybrant said.

A summary of what he wants policymakers to know is part of a recent podcast series from the Northwest Evaluation Association, or NWEA.

The nonprofit organization provides assessments and other educational services and is a partner in the National Teacher of the Year program, which is run by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

"Leading from the Classroom" features 2017 Teachers of the Year sharing their "education epiphany" - the personal moment that crystallized the importance of being a teacher.

"Every kid should have access to computer science instruction," Wybrant says in his podcast. "Not that every kid necessarily needs to opt into it, but that every kid should have the opportunity to build the future."

That's not what's happening, Wybrant told The Gazette.

About 80 percent of students graduating from college with computer science-related degrees are white men, he said.

"What that leads to is the majority of software being developed by white men, who don't experience all of the issues that women or minorities do."

One reason for the disparity is that students aren't being made aware that it's an available career field, he said. "More kids need more exposure more consistently."

Also, girls still face the inaccurate stigma of not being good at math and science, which can preclude them from considering computer science courses, he said.

Among the barriers, students told Wybrant they didn't feel comfortable, weren't getting social messaging directing them to computer science, and didn't have female mentors in the field.

So Wybrant formed a districtwide Tech Chic club three years ago for middle and high school girls. They built circuit boards, wrote programs and created a wall-mounted piano shaped like a lion that told facts about lions.

Students who fall behind are sent to remedial education, which is more structured and doesn't provide the "real-world" style of learning that helps them understand career paths, Wybrant said.

"All of our students are going to be living in the world, and they should have the chance to be a part of building it," he said. "They shouldn't be stuck in remedial classes, when they could have the opportunity to bring relevance and meaning into the classroom."

Funding is another obstacle. When students told Wybrant they wanted to learn video game design, he raised money from the Colorado Springs Rotary Club, Palmer High School Alumni Association and others to build a technology lab and buy equipment, including holographic headsets that create digital maps of the environment, a 3-D printer, programming software and a motion capture system.

"The big thing about schools asking for money is it's usually 'gimme, gimme.' They don't say, 'How can we be partners?' so there's a give and take and return on the investment," Wybrant said.

His students now are designing fun holographic games to teach their peers about the periodic table of elements and the concept of light using a virtual laser, for example.

Instead of looking at a periodic table poster on a classroom wall, students can click on an element and see a hologram - a photographic technique that records light scattered from an object and turns it into a 3-D image that can be viewed from all sides.

"They're working on pretty groundbreaking stuff," Wybrant said. "They're taking a difficult concept and showing how they can interact with it."

Microsoft even sent a Los Angeles producer to Palmer High to capture what students are doing with the technology.

"I thought I had to have a platform that was profound based on what this title meant, but the most important part of the title was there the whole time, and it's teacher," Wybrant said.

As Teacher of the Year, Wybrant has traveled the nation and spoken at events, participated in trainings and workshops about the profession, had a stage in the Oval Office and engaged in other opportunities he otherwise would not have had.

"What I realized from all these little steps we took throughout the year is that every teacher has the stories and the ability to be an advocate," he said. "They don't have to wait for the title. Every teacher can take one step toward the betterment of education for all students."

Wybrant's podcast can be found at http://teacherpodcasts.org.

Colorado's 2018 Teacher of the Year also is from Colorado Springs.

The Colorado Department of Education announced in October that Christina Randle, a first-grade teacher at Soaring Eagles Elementary School in Harrison School District No. 2, is succeeding Wybrant as the title holder.

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