UMass Amherst Receives Grant for Partnering with Springfield Public Schools to Teach Computer Science to Elementary Students

Rick Adrion
Rick Adrion

AMHERST, Mass. – Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst led by computer science professor Rick Adrion have received a four-year, $1.998 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to carry out research that will help teachers, specialists and administrators in Springfield’s 33 elementary schools to prepare their students to understand and apply computer science and computational thinking skills early in their academic careers.

Springfield is the second largest public school district in Massachusetts with almost 12,000 students, taught by more than 750 teachers, in grades K-5. They represent a diverse population including English learners, students with disabilities, underserved races and ethnicities and students experiencing poverty. Led by NSF and the U.S. Department of Education, the CSforAll program was launched in 2016 to ensure that computer science education is available to all students in the United States.

Adrion, a researcher in the College of Information and Computer Sciences, says this ambitious project will involve a multidisciplinary research team from UMass Amherst, the Five College Consortium, and MIT; Springfield Public School teachers, curriculum specialists and information technology professionals; plus evaluators from the Amherst firm SageFox Consulting Group to create “CSforAll Springfield.”

“This is outstanding news. I appreciate our continued partnership with UMass. It is vitally important to start our kids along this line of learning STEM, computer science and technology at a young age and to get them and their families oriented towards a path of success,” said Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno.

“Having been a longtime lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, I know first-hand the caliber of their faculty and students,” said Congressman Richard E. Neal. “In today’s world, the role of STEM education, especially in young students, cannot be understated. This partnership between UMass and the Springfield Public Schools will allow elementary-aged students to not only solve complex problems with the help of technology, but also help them see their potential for the future. This is tremendous news and will serve Springfield students well.”

“I’m very proud of the ongoing work at UMass Amherst to give all children an opportunity to learn the computer science skills necessary to succeed in today’s economy,” said Congressman Jim McGovern. “This grant is a huge win not only for students and teachers in Springfield – but for those around the country who will learn and benefit from the critically important research that is being done here.”

Two overarching goals of CSforAll Springfield will be to carry out research informed by the school district’s needs so educators can prepare Springfield’s youngest learners to “effectively use and create technology to solve complex problems” and to grow the expertise for computer science teaching and learning in the school district.

Adrion says the CSforAll research-practice partnership will integrate standards-based computer science and computational thinking concepts, learning progressions and practices in core lessons. To achieve this, the partners propose to create three cross-district professional learning communities of 20 K-5 teachers and specialists each.

“This grant will give Springfield teachers the ability to ensure their students gain critical thinking and computational skills by learning computer science, and we appreciate the commitment made by the University of Massachusetts to help teachers and students,” state Secretary of Education James Peyser said. “Knowledge of computer science is fundamental for all our students, and we are expanding access across the Commonwealth by adopting new digital literacy and computer science curriculum standards, amending the state’s recommended course requirements for high school students to include computer science, and training more teachers in the subject.”

“We are simply thrilled about this significant partnership and what it means for our students and their futures,” said Superintendent of Springfield Public Schools Daniel Warwick. “It not only completely aligns with, but also greatly enhances the district’s digital learning initiative, which is a major focus for our students and staff. We’re excited by the unique opportunity this grant provides for our teachers and administrators to work side-by-side with the CSforAll community.”

In addition to Adrion, the CSforAll Springfield team includes UMass Amherst researchers Enobong (Anna) Branch, sociology and associate chancellor for equity and inclusion, with Rebecca Mazur, Florence Sullivan and Rebecca Woodland, all in the College of Education. The team also includes Marla Solomon, director of partnership programs at the Five College Consortium, who will support the development of collaboration between researchers and teachers, and Sneha Veeragoudar Harrell, a research scientist at MIT. Paul Foster, chief information officer, leads the Springfield Public Schools team.

Adrion says his team hopes the CSforAll Springfield partnership will be a model for school districts in other cities with similar needs. “With a strong emphasis on diversity and inclusion, we have an opportunity to provide all students with the computer science and computational thinking skills they will need as they move through school and enter the workforce,” he says. “If successful, we can create a sustainable model that will influence other, diverse, medium-to-large urban districts across the nation.”