Mar 25 2021

Opportunity, Growth and Equity Drive Computer Science Education at Aberdeen High

A rural Mississippi Junior ROTC program is propelling a districtwide effort to shrink the digital equity gap for all students.

In late February 2020, Maj. Allen Williams and a handful of his colleagues from Aberdeen High School returned home to Mississippi, feeling revved up about the Computer Science for All training they’d just attended in Washington, D.C.

Williams, a 25-year Air Force veteran who runs the school’s JROTC program, understood the opportunity in front of his students, and was excited to introduce his cadets to new computer science learning initiatives and expand the initiatives schoolwide.

The D.C. training followed the Aberdeen School District’s selection as one of 30 districts in the country to participate in the JROTC-CS Demonstration Project, a partnership between CSforAll and the U.S. Air Force JROTC that aims to engage more students in computing and cybersecurity education pathways.

But just a few weeks later, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “we came to a screeching halt,” says Williams, who has led JROTC programs in K–12 and higher education settings since his retirement from the military in 2006.

“It has been frustrating because we had a lot of energy coming out of D.C., and literally within three weeks, the district was shut down for the rest of the school year,” he says.

Computer Science Education Gets Back on Track

One year into the pandemic, Aberdeen students are back in their classrooms part time, using a hybrid learning model. According to district leaders, the endeavor to expand computer science is gradually getting back on track as part of a broader, districtwide effort to shrink the digital equity gap.

Because the JROTC program has the flexibility to incorporate more computer science and cybersecurity-related instruction mixed in with the regular curriculum, Williams says, his program serves as a test bed for the school district to explore how certain activities could inspire students and prepare them for college and careers that may have initially felt out of their comfort zone.

“I tell my students to look for those opportunities where you can invest in yourself in high school and put yourself on a pathway to a career that, growing up here in rural Mississippi, you may never have even considered,” he says.

LEARN MORE: School districts share how they successfully navigated hybrid learning. 

Planting Seeds for Successful STEM Careers

Aberdeen’s 1,063 students are mostly Black, and a majority are considered economically disadvantaged, according to state education department data. Roughly 81 percent of students graduated from Aberdeen High School in 2019-2020, a slightly lower rate than the statewide average (85 percent).

Through programs like CyberStart, a cybersecurity simulation program that immerses teens in real-world scenarios and challenges them to solve problems, the 42 cadets — 80 percent of whom are female — are exploring science, technology, engineering and math careers. They’re also participating in CyberPatriot, a national youth cyber education program that the Air Force Association created so students can train with Air Force representatives using flight simulators.

Williams, a native Mississippian who spent three years of his Air Force career teaching ROTC at Tuskegee University, a historically black land-grant university one state over in Alabama, knows from personal experience how critical it is to expose students from low-income backgrounds to an array of activities and possible career paths. Absent these opportunities, he says, a student’s perspective on what they are capable of can be limited.

Indeed, when he talks to his students about the growing demand for tech-savvy workers such as cybersecurity experts at companies that pay starting salaries of $50,000 to $60,000, they are often surprised and curious.

DISCOVER: These 4 tips enhance STEM engagement in a hybrid classroom.

Closing the Gender Gap in STEM

Women are underrepresented in professional computer science occupations in the U.S., and this disparity is also reflected among students who take Advanced Placement computer science exams. While 56 percent of all AP test-takers in 2019 were girls, only 29 percent of AP computer science test-takers in 2019 were girls, according to data compiled by the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

“Closing the gender gap isn’t up to the students alone. It’s up to us — to change our behaviors, strategies and systems so that these classes and careers reflect the diversity in our communities,” says NCWIT Senior Research Scientist Brad McLain.

Changing the systems that contribute to a lack of representation for women, as well as for Black and Hispanic individuals, in computing fields requires, among other things, upgrading school IT systems to support more widespread and rigorous computer science instruction. The quick pivot to remote instruction last year has led districts around the country to make long-delayed IT upgrades and invest in Wi-Fi hotspots for students who don’t have reliable internet access at home.

RELATED: How can technology in the classroom promote equity?

The Trajectory of CSforAll in Aberdeen Post-Pandemic

Before the pandemic, Aberdeen was not a one-to-one device district, and many students lost technology access when schools shut down last year. To address that issue, the district purchased Chromebooks for all students, though it took months to get one into every student’s hands, Williams says, as the products were back-ordered due to the spike in demand when schools shut down.

As in other districts, some students in Aberdeen did not have reliable internet access at home, either due to affordability or because they lived far from cell towers. Purchasing hotspots for those families has helped.

The CSforAll program supported virtual training for two teachers (who had previously taught other subjects) to become certified as computer science instructors over the summer, and the high school began offering AP computer science classes in fall 2020. Williams plans to get certified this summer.

And in January, the JROTC program received 25 Dell Latitude 3410 laptops from CDW•G for cadet use, which was supported with a grant Williams applied for through The Intel Online Learning Initiative: Creating Connections.* The machines have Intel processors, 500-gigabyte hard drives and run on Microsoft Windows 10 Pro, according to Dorothy Frembgen, the district’s technology director.

The Dell laptops were the device of choice for the cadets’ computer science work because they are most similar to the PCs that cadets are likely to encounter in the workplace, says Williams. Windows is also the primary operating system used by the military, which recruits from school ROTC programs.

Williams and his colleagues hope to build on the nascent computer science programs so more students can participate. The pandemic sped up the infrastructure upgrades and hardware investments that will help make that goal possible — and which Aberdeen had been planning for before COVID-19, according to Superintendent Jeffrey Clay.

The district used state pandemic relief aid and federal E-rate funding to invest in IT upgrades, such as new network lines in the JROTC room and updated wireless connections throughout the district’s five main buildings. It also plans to double its bandwidth by this summer.

Clay considers the shift toward improved digital equity to be a fair amount of progress for a district that, like others in rural areas, did not even have an existing one-to-one device program last year. And throughout an immensely challenging year, the staff have approached technology needs and goals with a pragmatic attitude, he said.

“We tried not to get bogged down in all the things we didn’t have and couldn’t control, and focused on the things we did have or could get, and could control,” he says.

*Editor’s note: The grant initiative is supported by several companies, including CDW, which publishes EdTech: Focus on K–12.

Photography by Karenea Hayes