West Orange Resident Receives Google Grant as Part of Kean Research Team

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A prestigious Google grant is supporting Kean researchers working to break language barriers for Hispanic students in high school computer science classes.

The $113,000 grant is one of only six Computer Science and Education Research (CS-ER) grants awarded this year by Google. The other universities receiving the grant include the University of Michigan, Indiana University and Oregon State University.

Kean University researcher Mayra Bachrach teaches a computer science class.

“We are in quite an accomplished group,” said West Orange resident Mayra Bachrach, a researcher at the School of Computer Science and Technology in the College of Natural, Applied and Health Sciences who is overseeing the project. “Some of the grantees are rock stars in computer science education.”

The interdisciplinary Kean team, which also includes Gail Verdi, Ph.D., of North Plainfield, executive director of the School of Curriculum in the College of Education, and Patricia Morreale, Ph.D., of Millburn, executive director of the School of Computer Science and Technology, is training high school computer science teachers in bilingual and English as a Second Language (ESL) techniques to improve classroom instruction for Hispanic students.

“If we make the class more accessible by making language more accessible, they will have better outcomes,” Bachrach said. “That will lead them to take more computer science classes and encourage other Hispanic students to take the class. If successful, we hope it will improve the pipeline into computer science at the college level for these underrepresented students.”

The research project, Improving the Outcomes of Hispanics in AP Computer Science, runs through October 2020. It offers professional development for up to 35 Advanced Placement computer science teachers in “sheltered instruction” language-acquisition strategies, which focus on the four domains of language — listening, speaking, reading and writing.

“We are sensitizing these computer science teachers to the different types of language skills that students must develop to succeed academically,” Verdi said. “For example, how do we provide students with specific strategies to read at a more advanced level and to use writing to learn computer science?”

Bachrach, Verdi and Morreale come at that question with their own expertise and together develop strategies that the high school teachers take back to the classroom.

“It has been a challenging but productive collaboration,” Bachrach said. “It can be challenging for us to understand each other because our disciplines are so different. We discuss specific ESL and bilingual strategies and determine if they fit into a computer science model.”

Teachers from Newark, Union City, Hillside and other towns and cities have already started the training. Although the grant is geared toward improving instruction for Hispanic students, the work will assist students from many backgrounds who may struggle with language skills, Verdi said.

“We are focusing on discovering best practices for how teachers teach computer science, which is a relatively young field in K through 12 education,” Morreale said.

Bachrach, who graduated from Kean with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1978, brings her own personal experience to the project. An immigrant from Cuba, she learned English in seventh grade.

“I feel like I will be helping students like me and like a lot of our students at Kean who are English-language learners,” she said. “This is really important.”

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