ACCESS to Computer Science Education Vital for the Digital Age

Professor Debra Richardson is passionate about students’ access to computer science education, which is not just about access to computers, but about innovation of computing technology.  According to Richardson, “Computer science education builds students’ computational and critical thinking skills enabling them to create—not simply use—the next generation of computationally-oriented devices, tools, and games.”  This fundamental knowledge is needed to prepare students for the 21st Century, regardless of their ultimate field of study or occupation, giving them the tools they need to make further contributions to technology as well as its application in society.

Over the years, Richardson has undertaken a number of leadership roles with respect to computer science education in California and beyond.  As a long-time advocate of increasing the participation of women and other underrepresented minorities in computing, she has served on the leadership team of the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) since its inception in 2004, and currently leads UCI’s NCWIT PaceSetter team.  She chairs the Advisory Council for ACM’s Computer Science Teachers Association, serves on the ACM Education Board as well as on CRA’s Computing Community Consortium Council.

As part of her leadership, Richardson chaired Computer Science Education Week (CSEdWeek) in 2010 and 2011. CSEdWeek is a call to action that raises awareness about the need to elevate computer science education at all levels and to underscore the critical role of computing in all careers.  Since 2010, CSEdWeek has continued to grow.  In 2013, CSEdWeek was adopted by, which introduced the Hour of Code and set a goal of introducing 10 million students of all ages to various levels of “coding”—a fundamental skill in computer science—raising awareness about the critical nature of computer science education.   

Richardson currently chairs the Alliance for California Computing Education for Students and Schools (ACCESS), which is a statewide network of computer science education leaders dedicated to providing all California K-12 students with high-quality computer science education and ensuring access to all students, specifically targeting students under-represented in computing—girls, low-income students, and students of color.  ACCESS convenes K-12 teachers, administrators, and leaders; computer science professors from community colleges through universities; education school faculty and CS teacher professional developers; interested industry professionals; and educational policy advocates.

The mission of ACCESS is to advocate for equitable access to high quality computer science education for all K-12 students in California and for the requisite educational reform in California to reflect the importance of computer science in educating students in 21st century skills for college and career readiness and global citizenship. ACCESS’s goals are to: 

  • secure and elevate the status of K-12 computer science education so that California industry, parents, students, and policymakers prioritize, engage, and provide resources for quality computer science education;
  • ensure equitable access to computer science education for all K-12 students in California, especially for students traditionally underrepresented in the field such as girls, African-American, Latino/a, and low-income students;
  • scale up successful computer science education models in K-12 schools, such as Exploring Computer Science and CS Principles, which can be emulated throughout California, and in other states;
  • establish a computer science certification pathway for K-12 teachers in California, and ensure that quality professional development is available to these teachers;
  • update state standards for computer science education and advocate for computer science to count for core credit (math or science) for high school graduation and UC/CSU admissions; and
  • streamline computer science educational pathways for students entering community college and preparing for careers in computer science and/or transitioning to four-year colleges and universities.

ACCESS is about ensuring opportunities for all students to explore computer science. 

ACCESS originated in February 2011 at the first NSF Computing Education in the 21st Century (CE21) community meeting in New Orleans.  At this meeting, Richardson was enthusiastically selected to lead the effort and serve as chair of the steering committee.  She was able to devote a good deal of time to the effort as she had recently concluded her term as the founding dean of the Bren School of ICS and was then on sabbatical; she has served as chair of ACCESS ever since.  Richardson obtained partial funding for ACCESS in October 2012 as part of the Expanding Computing Education Pathways Alliance, with California as a partner state and Richardson serving as the California principal investigator.  Building on five years of work by the Commonwealth Alliance for IT Education and Georgia Computes! in the Broadening Participation in Computing community, ACCESS joins other states, sharing best practices and effective statewide strategies for scaling up computer science education.

In her role with ACCESS, Richardson is active in shaping state policy around computer science education.  She analyzed and advocated for computer science related bills brought before the California legislature in the last session.  According to Richardson, “The state legislature has heard the message that computer science is what drives innovation and economic growth in California, and that the demand for computer science graduates in California far exceeds supply.  There are simply not enough students prepared or preparing to join this high tech workforce.  The legislature is attempting to affect change to computer science education in California, and for all the right reasons.”  Of seven bills introduced, three were forwarded to and signed by Governor Brown:

  • SB 1200 (Padilla) requests UC/CSU to establish guidelines for CS courses that satisfy college admission requirements;
  • AB 1764 (Olson/Buchanan) allows school districts to count a qualified CS course toward advanced math credit in districts that require more than two math courses for graduation; and
  • AB 1539 requires the Instructional Quality Commission to consider developing K-12 computer science content standards for adoption by the State Board of Education.

In addition, AR 108 (Hagman) recognized the week of Dec. 8, 2014 as Computer Science Education Week; the CSEdWeek 2014 program was held December 8-14.  According to Richardson, “These bills have the potential to expand opportunities and increase participation in computer science education, though hard work remains to ensure these opportunities are equally accessible for underrepresented students in computer science – girls, low-incomestudents, and students of color.”  ACCESS will continue that work.

A problem exacerbated by this legislation is that there are not enough K-12 teachers in California prepared to teach computer science.  Richardson has developed a new authorization for credentialed teachers focusing on the fundamentals of computer science.  She will present this supplementary authorization for approval before the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing in February 2015. 

Richardson is also actively working to “Make CS Count” in California.  Despite the legislation discussed above, for the most part computer science classes only count as elective credits towards graduation and admission to public universities in California – that is, they are not considered part of the “core” requirements, such as math and science.  Richardson states,  “Research shows that the ability to count a computer science course as a math or science graduation credit is a primary factor in a student’s decision to take computer science in high school, which is especially true for students traditionally absent from these courses and the opportunities they provide.”

This article appeared in ISR Connector issue: