Clark Merkley has a plan—a plan to go out of business. "If every elementary student in the world knew how to code and knew how to do rigorous computational thinking, we would close the doors." Because of Clark's lofty goal, BootUp PD will not likely be closing anytime soon. And Clark is ready to lead the charge.
From attorney to junior high teacher to HR executive to non-profit executive director, Clark has seemingly done it all. That varied—and impressive— career path makes more sense once you understand his zeal for learning and his quest to make the world a better place. He's spent a lifetime honing the exact skills that led BootUpPD to reach its goals: empowering teachers to reach students, encouraging equity, leading with innovation, and adhering to evidence.
Empowering Teachers to Reach Students
A nonprofit, BootUp PD's mission is to teach every student about computer science, specifically coding. Striving to have a large, long-lasting impact, BootUp PD strategically focuses on teacher professional development at a district-wide level, reaching the students through the teachers.
Clark states that "teachers are a critical link in making that connection for students." If teachers are given the right tools and training, then computer science principles can be incorporated easily into the teachers' curriculum so the students will be eager to learn. To reach as many students as possible, the training must be delivered through teachers.
Figure 1 shows that BootUp PD has already served 700,000 students since its inception five years ago. It hopes to hit the 1-million mark this year. BootUp PD works with 40% of the Utah school districts in addition to many other school districts all over the country. While it is willing to work with any district that is interested and can afford the services, BootUp PD tries to target areas where it can reach traditionally underserved students.
At its core, BootUp PD is about equity and inclusivity. Clark says it best: "Our mission is a computer-science-for-all initiative; equity has to be at the center of it." If a school district is interested in a limited version of BootUp PD's program, such as teaching only to talented and gifted students or only as an after-school program, BootUp PD declines the offer. It wants to teach all of the students.
Through its partnership with Amazon Future Engineer, BootUp PD reaches school districts and populations of students who would not typically have access to computer science. All of the school districts served through Amazon Future Engineer have over 90% free and reduced lunch and 90% traditionally underserved communities. Although the goal is to get computer science tools in the hands of every student, Clark says he and others at BootUp PD would like to see more females and people of color in STEM. Working with students who might not traditionally learn about computer science is the company's way of reaching this goal.
Leading with Innovation
In addition to reaching all students, BootUp PD is committed to innovation. In the past year, it launched a YouTube channel called For Girls by Girls, whose goal is to amplify girls' voices. Girls watching the channel can see people just like them doing things with technology and computer science. No one knows whether the channel will actually be successful, but BootUp PD wants to try and see what happens.
The new YouTube channel isn't BootUp PD's only new initiative. While BootUp PD currently offers curriculum resources and professional development for elementary school teachers, it is hoping to soon expand into middle school curriculum. It's also had several higher education institutions inquire about programs for elementary education majors. College-level computer science classes are more advanced than what an elementary school teacher would need. The elementary education majors need a curriculum that provides age-appropriate computer science teaching skills.
Adhering to Evidence
While innovation can lead to success, Clark is careful to keep innovation in check with academically sound ideas. In fact, BootUp PD partnered with Dr. Peter Rich (BYU) to assess its services and ensure it is offering proven techniques. This process determined that the best professional development occurs over time. Training over time gives teachers a chance to put the skills into practice, reflect on how the curriculum is working, and then come back for more professional development to continue building their skills. This method also ensures better retention for the teachers.
Clark sums up BootUp PD's mission with a simple student-focused statement: "We just want to have kids get involved in the joy of learning, the joy of self-expression, and the joy of putting their own voice in their projects." And, as BootUp PD moves forward empowering teachers, encouraging equity, leading with innovation, and adhering to evidence, it just might achieve that mission.