Jamie Varnell, a Computer Science Teacher at Paris High School, was recently awarded a $2000 Professional Development Sponsorship from the Arkansas Department of Education.
Varnell was one of 35 Arkansas educators selected to each receive a $2,000 sponsorship from the ADE. The sponsorships assist educators with expanding their knowledge of computer science and allowing them to network with other educators from around the world at the Computer Science Teachers Association conference held in Arlington, Virginia, July 11–15, 2020.
"The CSTA Annual Conference provides a great opportunity for educators to listen to keynote speakers, attend a variety of sessions on a wide range of topics, network with other educators and industry professionals, and to visit with educational vendors and sponsors," said Carl Frank, president of Arkansas CSTA. "This year, there are over 100 sessions to choose from, and the closing keynote speaker is Linda Liukas from Helsinki, Finland. Arkansas educators really make an impression at this conference, not only by its large number in attendance, but many by their active participation either by presenting sessions or sharing what they do in their classroom. I highly recommend the CSTA Conference to anyone interested in computer science education."
Varnell said that he heard about the scholarship through a computer science cohort that he works with to develop a curriculum for the PHS program, and the application process consists of an essay and references from an administrator and coworker.
"Mr. O'Toole and Mr. Nichols approached me a year ago about starting the process. The licensure to teach it is the toughest in the state and it is quite intimidating. Mr. Nichols knew of my background working as a technology specialist for a large high school in Oklahoma, so he was very encouraging and optimistic," said Varnell.
Varnell said that with the help of Mr. O'Toole, who is a math guy, he started training and attending boot camps for CS Teachers. Varnell also spent an additional two weeks this past summer learning and developing the curriculum.
"This summer, we started the process of getting the startup grant for a CS Program of study at Paris and just last week learned we were awarded almost $21,000 for our classroom."
Varnell said that while the $2,000 will help him go and learn from other teachers, the classroom grant will revolutionize the classrooms by allowing PHS to put more machines and larger, all-in-one computers in the classrooms.
"We have also been allotted some funds to develop our extracurricular efforts and increase the hands-on portion of the class. We have Micro:Bit processors that serve as the programmable centerpiece for students to compete in the Apps For Good Festival in Little Rock and other events. Students will also be competing in the Governor's State Coding Competition later this month and we are adding a coding competition piece to the regional STEM competition."
Varnell said he is very excited about the STEM competition because he will get to work with his dad, Curtis Varnell, who has worked his entire life in science education and built a giant competition that is unmatched in the state.
"Before he retires, I will get to work with him and my brother at that competition this year and introduce Computer Science."
As an educator, Varnell said that he has come full circle on the need for computer science and that the journey has changed him as much or more than my students.
"My classes are full and students who may have struggled in a traditional math class are smiling and asking questions when they leave each day. Many come in at lunch to improve their skill or to stay on task on their own. I honestly never saw this kind of program success coming so quickly. Few schools our size are offering Computer Science as an in house program. Everyone has to offer it, but most are virtual or have a moderator. Teaching it has made all the difference and the students make me look good every week."
These classes can help students by filling the needed credit as either a math or science, as needed. For some students struggling with traditional math or science, it can help them get to their goals.
Varnell said that PHS plans to offer CS 3and 4 with programming next year that will be a weighted class and is slated to receive an honors credit.
"We will also offer our seniors next year a chance to be a completer in Computer Science by taking a third-year course called Computer Science plus Entrepreneurship. It is a natural fit for us and focuses on the process of finding a need and creating a solution using technology."
Varnell said that he brags on this program all of the time and that this is a community investment and PHS is ahead of the curve.
"The Paris students are not just checking a box or getting a grade; they are innovators."