Lifelong dedication to improving the system drives College of Education alumna Chris Stephenson
By Siobhan Murray
Chris Stephenson, Ph.D. ’08, is passionate about educating the next generation. But she’s also deeply concerned. For starters, K-12 education in the U.S. has fallen behind in certain subjects, particularly computer science, which is Stephenson’s area of expertise. Secondly, we could be losing the very teachers that shape the next generation.
So, Stephenson has made it her life’s work to help improve the system. A Ph.D. in the College of Education laid the foundation for her career as a computer science educator. She recently retired as the Head of Computer Science Education Strategy for Google, where she focused on improving computer science teaching and learning across Google’s computer science education programs.
The key to solving the problems we face in education? Stephenson believes the answer is a commitment to social justice. That’s part of the reason the College of Education was such a good fit for her.
“The faculty really walked the talk when it came to social justice,” she said. They facilitated difficult conversations around race, ethnicity and gender in the classroom. And at a broader scale, Stephenson came to view computer science education itself as a form of equity.
Computing is commonly considered the “new literacy,” since everything – from communicating to banking to making reservations at a restaurant – now requires knowing how to use a computer. “And if you look at the job opportunities in today’s world, computer science education is a critical pathway to economic stability and upward mobility, not just for individuals but for countries,” said Stephenson, whose work for Google spanned the globe. “As is often the case, the groups that have been marginalized in the discipline are the same groups that have been historically marginalized in society.”
That’s why one of her biggest job responsibilities was to ensure that the programs Google launches in its philanthropic space are not only academically sound, but truly serve students, educators, and the broader community.
Sometimes, they directly serve the Beaver community. One of the Google programs closest to Stephenson’s heart is an annual grants program for researchers doing work on K-12 computer science education. In one of the program’s first years, out of an extremely competitive field, the best grant proposal Google received was from an Oregon State education researcher.
Stephenson has been personally supporting the College of Education for years and Google has matched her gifts, doubling her impact. Part of the Beaver Leadership Circle, she is also a founding member of the college’s Alumni and Friends Leadership Council, which advises the dean.
Stephenson sees her gifts and involvement as ways she can do something about a looming crisis in education.
“We’re going to be facing a collapse of the teaching pipeline where we just cannot hire enough teachers, because there aren’t enough of them. There are many social, economic and systemic reasons people aren’t going into teaching. So, I’m very happy to support initiatives that make it possible for teacher candidates to become teachers – to ease their way.”
She appreciates the college’s efforts to help students pay for teacher licensure fees and provide emergency support to students who needed help during the pandemic.
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