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OnRamps Offers College Experience for College Credit, May Open Pathways to STEM

Paula McKinney

Paula McKinney

Zack Williamson
March 3, 2014

For Westlake High School teacher Paula McKinney, OnRamps brought about a welcome change of pace from the Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science courses she had taught in the past. Before, the success of her students hinged upon their performance on an end-of-year AP exam that covered a slew of material on a subject that, prior to McKinney’s class, was entirely new to many of the students. In AP Computer Science, “we go from 0-60 in one year,” said McKinney, “so you have to go at a certain rate in order to cover all the material.” 

With so much to cover and the high stakes attached to performance on the AP exam, students and teacher alike feel the pressure. “Some days it has to be 45 minutes of lecture in order for us to get through the material in my AP class” McKinney said. “There’s not a whole lot of time for re-teaching and reinforcement of concepts.” 

So when McKinney heard about the opportunity to participate in the piloting of a Computer Science Principles course, called Thriving in our Digital World, McKinney was eager to volunteer. The course is co-supported by the National Science Foundation as Project Engage and UT Austin, through OnRamps.  Designed by faculty and educators at the University of Texas at Austin to align with the expectations of leading research universities, OnRamps courses offer high school and community college students the opportunity to adapt to the rigors of college coursework while earning college credit from UT Austin or another college. Excited by the opportunity to collaborate with University faculty “that could provide the curriculum, training, and support,” McKinney inquired about the possibility of offering the course at Westlake High School.

McKinney was amazed at how easily she was able to bring about a partnership between Westlake and UT Austin’s OnRamps project. While attending a Women in Computer Science event early in December of 2012, she expressed her interest to Dr. Calvin Lin, Computer Science professor at UT Austin and faculty lead for Project Engage-OnRamps. “By Christmas 2012, we got all the powers that be together and said, ‘Yes, we can offer this next year.’” McKinney said. “So it came together really amazingly.”

It’s not just 45 minutes of lecture. Having every day include a little bit of lecture, a little bit of activity, a little bit of kids working on their own – I think that’s an ideal situation.

After a year teaching Thriving in our Digital World, McKinney says both she and her students are pleased with the course. Unlike lecture-based classes, which relegate students to the role of passive recipients of instruction, the OnRamps curricula encourage students to actively engage with the course content on a continual basis. “It’s an ideal way to teach a class because you have the kids doing different things,” said McKinney. “It’s not just 45 minutes of lecture. Having every day include a little bit of lecture, a little bit of activity, a little bit of kids working on their own – I think that’s an ideal situation.”

The blended learning environment in which all OnRamps courses are delivered contributes to this variety. OnRamps students can access content (videos, written content, etc.) through CANVAS, the interactive, cloud-based learning management system (LMS) that students use at UT Austin. CANVAS allows students to complete individual assignments online, outside of class in preparation for in-class activities. McKinney feels that students’ experience with navigating this type of LMS, which they will routinely use at the university level, is a key element in accelerating the college success of OnRamps students. “It has been a huge learning experience for them,” she said. “Being able to download information, submit assignments, and do that online – that’s been a big deal.” 

McKinney also emphasized the value of the experience with rubric-based grading procedures that the Project Engage-Onramps course provides students, calling it “a huge learning experience for them”. Like many college courses, OnRamps assigns students grades based on standardized performance criteria, or rubrics. These criteria are developed by UT faculty to reflect the performance demands that students will face at the college level. Students are evaluated on a number of rubric-based assignments, and it is their cumulative performance, not a single test score as is the case with AP, that determines whether they receive college credit. 

I had one student who didn’t really know what the course was about and maybe didn’t even expect to get anything from it. Her mother recently emailed me and told me that she’s really considering this as a career, where she never would have before.

By exposing students to a course that shares the rigor and features that they will encounter at the next level, McKinney believes that OnRamps “will absolutely help students succeed in college.” Even more, she is seeing the Project-Engage-OnRamps course open up pathways to STEM:“I had one student who didn’t really know what the course was about and maybe didn’t even expect to get anything from it,” McKinney said. “Her mother recently emailed me and told me that she’s really considering this as a career, where she never would have before.”

OnRamps is looking for partners to join our network of innovative teachers. With help from UT Faculty such as Dr. Lin and UT Course Coordinators Bradley Beth and Gregory Russell, Project Engage-OnRamps prepares teachers to teach rigorous, dual-credit coursework in Computer Science using innovative pedagogies through a residential summer professional development institute. In additional to the Computer Science course, OnRamps offers an English Language Arts course, a Pre-Calculus course, and will be piloting a Statistics course in the Fall of 2014. Contact OnRamps Partnership Coordinator Megan Parry at megan.parry@austin.utexas.edu or http://onramps.org/request-information/ to learn more.  

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