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ND education department partners with Microsoft for more computer science classes

Taya Spelhaug, the Microsoft TechSpark manager for North Dakota, speaks to a group of school administrators on Monday in Bismarck about the implementation of the Technology Education and Literacy in Schools program. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK—The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction is partnering with Microsoft to expand computer science offerings.

On Monday, State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler announced schools can participate in a Microsoft program called Technology Education and Literacy in Schools, or TEALS, which pairs professionals in computer science fields with classroom instructors to offer computer science education.

In North Dakota, computer science courses are scarce, and the number of high school students taking Advanced Placement computer science exams is low. Last year, only 40 students took advanced computer science tests, according to Code.org.

There are 500,000 open computing jobs in the United States, and that number is expected to double by 2020, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The demand for computer science skills is increasing, and the focus is shifting to science, technology, engineering — or STEM — subjects in the K-12 system.

Baesler noted challenges for districts that want to offer computer science courses, including a lack of qualified classroom instructors and barriers to teacher credentialing and licensing. The Microsoft TEALS program is one way to break down those barriers, she said.

"We tend to underestimate the importance of computer science. It really truly is a foundational subject," Baesler said. "(The TEALS) program really does nurture the potential for a strong, permanent, sustainable computer science program in schools."

Microsoft's TEALS program was founded in 2009 by a Microsoft employee and operates in 29 states and more than 350 schools. Only one school in North Dakota, Hillsboro High School, is currently participating in the program.

Terry Baesler is the principal of Hillsboro High School, a school in the Red River Valley that has about 150 students. This is their first year in the TEALS program, and, previously, the school did not offer any computer science courses. School officials kicked around the idea of applying for the TEALS program after some students had inquired about taking these courses.

"It's hard to know where to start, and that's why this TEALS program works so well for us," he said, adding that five seniors in the class have indicated they want to study computer science in college.

Microsoft will hire a full-time coordinator for the TEALS program in North Dakota, in addition to volunteering some of its employees for the program, Baesler said.

The program offers three "models of support" for districts, which range in the amount of support volunteers provide to classroom instructors. Some volunteers interact with students remotely via Skype.

The TEALS program also offers resources for students, including summer internships, competitions and hackathons.

The deadline to apply for the program is Feb. 26. For more information, visit tealsk12.org/schools.

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