Helping build a framework for teaching computer science in schools is a lifetime achievement for Dr. Monica McGill, Ed.D. ’10, and Dr. Anni Reinking, Ed.D. ’15. After a full career in computer science and academia, McGill founded the nonprofit in Peoria, turning her experience in a new direction with an eye toward the future of computer science education.

New legislation in Illinois and many other states mandating that all high schools teach computer science courses left McGill wondering what effect this would have on the entire education system and how she could help teachers be prepared for this new reality.

McGill spent much of her career in the technical side of computer science before returning to school for her doctorate degree in the School of Teaching and Learning (TCH) at Illinois State. Upon completion of her degree, she taught at Knox College for several years before making research her primary focus. Previously, she had partnered with Dr. Adrienne Decker from the University at Buffalo on research surrounding computer science education, where they developed a website that serves as a resource center for K-12 education researchers. With Decker’s blessing, McGill decided to use the well established URL——as the name of her new nonprofit. In 2021, McGill devoted herself to this work fulltime and hired fellow Redbird educator Dr. Anni Reinking.

Reinking, who also completed her doctorate from TCH, was an early childhood and middle level classroom teacher in Chicago and Indiana before relocating to Central Illinois to teach in East Peoria.

“I didn’t know Monica at all, but after I finished my doctorate, I lectured at a few institutions including in the early childhood program at ISU,” said Reinking. “I just happened to apply to this position on Indeed and didn’t realize until later that Monica only lived about a mile away.”

McGill’s goals are to provide teachers with the most effective practices to teach computer science to their students. She sees two primary reasons why computer science should be taught in all schools. The first is that all jobs will require some level of computing, so students will need to start learning the basics at a young age to be successful in their careers. The second is to better understand both the positive and negative impacts that computing has on all our lives.

“While in industry, I always wanted to work for a humanitarian agency and do something more meaningful. I never thought it would be this directly related to my field, but I feel strongly that it does a lot of good,” said McGill. “We don’t just want students to learn how to use a computer, but to also have an understanding about what that use means for society going forward.”

The organization is also very focused on equity in computer science education. A significant portion of their research surrounds the need for increased access to, and participation in, computer science and other STEM programs for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). In fact, McGill wants to consistently see the organization conducting equity focused education research to break down barriers for students and enable research and retention of marginalized students.

“I first got interested in computers by taking a class when I went to Pekin High School,” said McGill. “That was it for me. Also, my parents were always adamant that I would get the same opportunities as my brothers, so the idea of equity and fairness was instilled in me at a young age.” utilizes a tool developed by colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin. The CAPE framework was designed to help frame equity in the computer science education spectrum but can be used in other areas as well. CAPE stands for the CAPACITY to offer equitable computer science education, who has ACCESS to it, who is PARTICIPATING in it, and what kind of learning EXPERIENCES they are having. The framework serves as a lens for assessing equity not simply as an end product, but as an integral component to each element of the systems that support computing education.

Leaders in the field

Computer science education research is still a very new field. In fact, since this is the first time in decades that a new field is being introduced into K-12 spaces, the organization has the opportunity and challenge to be seen as a leader in contributing to best practices for training computer science teachers through high quality professional development experiences that will ultimately benefit students.

“There is not much research on best practices in computer science education right now,” said McGill. “Our goal is to build up the foundational knowledge in the field and also to ensure that instruction is equitable.”

McGill and Reinking both see the organization growing significantly over the next few years, with a goal to have 10 fulltime staff in the next five years as they add grants to their slate of projects.

“We are always looking for opportunities to build on our existing work,” said Reinking. “Ultimately, I would like to see our organization as one of the foundational pieces that helped build the groundwork for computer science education in K-12settings.”

The research so far has received funding through eight grants from a variety of organizations, including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Google. They are currently supporting impact research of a $10 million NSF Engineering PLUS Alliance grant that partners with more than 150 higher education institutions.

According to McGill, one of the more rewarding projects the organization is working on involves pairing researchers with teachers to develop practice briefs. In this project, classroom teachers read a specific research study followed by a guided discussion with the researchers to fully understand the practical implications for their classrooms. To make the experience more practical, the teachers then write a two-page practice brief that can be used by other classroom teachers.

“I forgot how much I enjoyed working with K-12 teachers, and this was really inspirational for me,” said McGill. “The experience was a real energizer for me during the heights of the pandemic. It’s easy for researchers to be in research mode, but it doesn’t do you any good if it doesn’t get used.”

Redbird educator connection

Both McGill and Reinking credit the experiences of their doctoral programs in the School of Teaching and Learning as the reason they have been able to demonstrate early success with their organization.

“All the connections and relationships I built during my program at Illinois State have been invaluable in my professional world,” said Reinking. “I truly believe that starting this organization wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gone through the doctoral program at ISU,” said McGill. “I wouldn’t have gained the perspective that I have about K-12 teachers or have all the formal research methodologies training if I hadn’t gone to ISU. I definitely credit my learning here for being able to start this organization.”

McGill and Reinking look forward to growing their organization and building a lasting impact on both teacher education and students for years to come.