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WVU Extension brings computer science education to rural communities through partnership with Google and National 4-H

STEM camper looking at a tablet that helps control a game

Students in rural communities across the United States, including students in West Virginia, will be honing computer science skills and further developing science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) education with the help of Google and the National 4-H Council.

The two organizations recently announced a $6 million Computer Science (CS) Innovator grant, which will help students across 20 states learn skills needed to approach problems in a fundamentally different way across every discipline from business to agriculture to the arts.

West Virginia University Extension Service received a $250,000 grant which is being used to equip 4-H educators with new resources, including curriculum development, training, devices and access to Google experts to further expand computer science offerings throughout the state—particularly for rural youths, first-generation college students, minorities and females.

“When I’m teaching throughout West Virginia, I see the need to enhance STEM career opportunities and ways that STEM can enhance other careers, too. We know that there are many jobs available in these fields, but we lack individuals who have training and education, this is particularly true for computer science. Based on feedback from youths, parents and teachers, we know that the activities and outreach we provide help to fill a very critical need, while encouraging curiosity in STEM-related fields,” said Jennifer Robertson-Honecker, WVU Extension Service STEM specialist and principle investigator on the Google and National 4-H CS Innovator and CS Career Pathways grants.

The grant also enabled WVU Extension Service to add a CS Innovator visiting instructor to reach more youths in the state. Joshua Meadows, a former WVU STEM ambassador, brings a specific focus on computer science through the delivery of STEM programming for youths and training for educators, afterschool care providers and youth volunteers. Because of the state’s geography and, in some cases lack of reliable Internet access, programming will be delivered both online and through hands-on activities, giving more students opportunities to engage in these unique learning experiences.

Students like Decklan Thomas, a Preston County 4-H’er who attended the first WVU Code Camp in 2018 is now teaching other youths to code. During camp, Thomas’ casual interest in computer science grew, and he started to explore the possibility of dedicated studies in the field and ultimately, even a career. While Thomas had his future set on becoming a diesel mechanic, that all changed when he attended a national training for 4-H teens in Utah, where he experienced coding for the first time.

“I wanted to be a diesel mechanic mainly because it’s something simple—this wire looks burnt or this fuse box is wrong,” stated Thomas. “And, it’s the same thing with coding. You see something wrong, then fix it—and end up with something amazing.”

Even though he’s still considering becoming a diesel mechanic, Thomas is also exploring other career alternatives, such as becoming a biomedical engineer or even going into the Navy.

“This grant couldn’t come at a more appropriate time. Through STEM programming, we are piquing students’ interest in this exciting field and providing them with opportunities to explore career paths through computer science. So, this is a natural fit for WVU Extension Service to fulfill this need,” said WVU Extension Service Interim Dean Sue Day-Perroots. “Thanks to this partnership with Google and National 4-H, the training and knowledge our state’s citizens will be receiving will ultimately allow West Virginia to flourish in the technology realm—a crucial piece of the state’s prosperity.”

Earlier this year, Governor Jim Justice signed Senate Bill 267, which made West Virginia the first state in the nation to require that students have access to computer science education before graduating from high school. Through the CS Innovator grant, WVU Extension Service will be able to play a pivotal role in providing West Virginia youths with a strong foundation in this growing field.

The WVU Extension Service 4-H and youth development program has become a national leader in STEM education. In 2017, WVU Extension Service received initial grant funding through from National 4-H Council for the CS Career Pathway program. This funding helped to create several new computer science education opportunities, including the first WVU 4-H Code Camp in February 2018. During the past 18 months, WVU Extension Service reached an additional 6,500 youths and 1,500 adults across the state through the Pathway program. Dr. Robertson-Honecker and Meadows also worked with Google to create the 2018 4-H National Youth Science Day challenge Code Your World, which reached more than 7,000 West Virginia youths and 200,000 students nationwide.

Driving STEM education and outreach in West Virginia to steadily build a robust talent pipeline is one example of moving West Virginia forward. By providing West Virginia students with more opportunities to learn about STEM fields, including computer science, the more prepared they will be for future educational, entrepreneurial and long-term career opportunities.

West Virginia Forward is a statewide collaboration led by West Virginia University, the state Department of Commerce and Marshall University to help grow the economy by adding jobs, investing in education and improving health and wellness to create the most prosperous West Virginia possible.

To learn more about STEM and computer science programming opportunities, contact WVU Extension Service 4-H Youth Development STEM Specialist Jennifer Robertson-Honecker at 304-293-8130 or Jen.Robertson@mail.wvu.edu.

For more information about WVU Extension Service, visit extension.wvu.edu or follow @WVUExtension on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram.