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  • Writer's pictureReach University

Faculty Spotlight: Computer science skills for all

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

Welcome & Intro: Dr. Emily Thomforde (Dr. Em)

Founding Chair & Faculty Lead for Computer Sciences (CS) at Reach University

Tell us about your background.

My PhD is in Artificial Intelligence, but I got into education through informal and out-of-school time learning spaces: museums, libraries, elective programs, and hackathons. My career took me from volunteering in my local school, to building a school-wide STEAM program, to coordinating at the county office, then to the state. I most recently served as the inaugural Computer Science Coordinator at the California Department of Education. Along the way, I have taken smaller commissions developing curriculum, leading professional development, and implementing programs. I also chair the weekly CSEd Discussion Group and the AIforCA project, and mentor the Bay Area Youth Computer Science Council.

My purpose and professional commitment has been to build sustainable structures that empower schools to implement computer science education equitably for all students.

What are you passionate about?

Culturally responsive pedagogy! If I had only had time to teach one thing, it would be the first Practice in the K-12 CS Framework, “Foster an inclusive computing culture.” Computing has for so long been the domain of a cultural elite that keeps power to itself; school can be the solution. We can remove barriers and eliminate gatekeeping to include those who have been historically excluded: girls, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students, English Language Learners, students with disabilities, and students in rural schools. Every student should be able to see themselves in computing, so we need to supply them with diverse role models, meaningful connections to family and community, and multiple opportunities for success.

What brought you to Reach?

Joining Reach as Faculty Lead and Professor of Computer Sciences is the next logical step in a career that spans curriculum, pedagogy, implementation, and policy. As more and more states are moving towards CS requirements in K-12 education, our teaching workforce has to be equipped to deliver on that promise. Truly achieving #CSforAll nationwide will take a generational shift in the skills and dispositions of teachers, and I am here to invest in them.

What do you envision building at Reach?

Computer science can be intimidating, especially if you don’t have the choice to be there. I’m excited to make that first experience of computing a positive one, where

every candidate can find joy, agency, and power, and where they can begin to build a strong computing identity.

I’d also like to build connections among faculty and across disciplines. Technology is already a core component of the learning experience at Reach – how can we leverage principles and standards from computer science to enhance learning by being creators of computational artifacts, rather than mere consumers?

Teaching is an important part of your background. Tell us more.

I put myself through graduate school teaching swing and blues dance in the evenings, so my go-to attention getter is still “five, six, seven, eight!” Transitioning between dancing and teaching dance brought home to me the difference between content knowledge and pedagogy (though I didn’t have words for it at the time!) and the experience has influenced how I train teachers. It’s not enough to just expose educators to routines or static patterns– true mastery is the ability to recombine ideas in the moment, to improvise and recover from failure. So like dance, I treat both teaching and computing as performing arts: they should be fun, they make you part of a community, and you can only improve with practice.

We’re excited that you will be leading CS at Reach.

I’m excited to be here! I am passionate about Reach’s mission; it dovetails nicely with my personal mission to bring computer science to all. I relish the opportunity to prove to our future teachers that CS is both relevant and achievable.

And we can’t pass up a chance to share that you’re also a BAFTA-winning video game developer.

After finishing my PhD in artificial intelligence in Scotland, I went into game development with my husband. We made a whimsical hand-illustrated word game for the iPad that won the 2013 Scottish BAFTA. Afterward, I got a commission to develop a game for an online girls magazine. I thought it would be cool to make the game in a way that girls could hack and learn to code, and I’ve been on that path ever since!

Anything else you’d like to share?

I get asked a lot about my Zoom background. 1) Yes, it is my real office. 2) The light board is a string of 49 LEDs poked through a square of black cardboard, connected to an Arduino, with 3D printed dials that control the color and brightness. 3) The cross-stitch samplers are the seven core practices from the national K-12 CS Framework. 4) I change the books to suit my mood. Look out for subversive titles!

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