Real talk from real computer science teachers

100 computer science teachers from across the U.S. met in Washington, D.C. last year to learn from their peers and from top education scholars from around the country.

In 2010, the National Science Foundation (NSF) launched an effort to place 10,000 qualified computer science teachers in 10,000 high schools — and eventually to bring computer science to every student in the nation.

But this ambitious goal has some obstacles that are not widely recognized. For instance, how can computer science education scale from a few thousand to tens of thousands of schools? And where will all the trained computer science teachers come from?

Though some educators have been teaching computer science for decades, many are new to the field — either new teachers entirely, or new to the discipline, having transitioned from math, science or some other area of expertise.

Furthermore, experienced teachers are teaching newly developed courses — like Exploring Computer Science and a new advanced placement (AP) class called Computer Science Principles (CSP) — for the first time, learning new concepts and ways of instructing students.

In many cases, these teachers are the only ones in their school (or even their districts) teaching computer science at all.

Teaching computer science can be challenging — and can also lead to unexpected joy as teachers experience just how transformative computer science can be.

NSF’s effort has focused on enabling the research and professional development necessary to make nationwide computer science education a reality. This includes supporting studies on what works pedagogically, funding the creation of a framework for the new AP CSP test, backing the creation of professional development materials, and supporting the organizations that are preparing computer science teachers across the nation.

Last year, during Computer Science Education Week, NSF and the National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT) organized a meeting in Washington, D.C. for 100 computer science teachers. There, the teachers learned from their peers and from top education scholars around the country and were even celebrated at a special ceremony at the White House.

As part of the meeting, NSF invited teachers to interview each other one-on-one and discuss what excited them, what scared them, and what they’d learned about the impact of computer science education on students?

What follows are snippets from their conversations about the highs, lows and continuing efforts to bring computer science education to every student in the country.

A conversation between Gina McCarley, Lawrence County High School, Moulton, Alabama and Carol Yarbrough, Alabama School of Fine Art, Birmingham, Alabama

Carol Yarbrough: Gina, I’m in awe of your ability to win contests. Even before I met you, I had heard about the Samsung contest where you won $100,000 worth of equipment for your school. Why do you do it and how do you do it?

GM: I teach as a rural Title 1 school. We just don’t have a lot of funding for equipment and I want my students to have exposure to the best technology available. We have lots of students that don’t have access to technology outside of school. It’s hard to think of a day that you can’t have access to email or the Internet, but we have some students that come to school to eat, so technology is low on the list. So I like to have those tools in class so they can have exposure.

Gina McCarley, a computer science teacher at Lawrence County High School in Moulton, Alabama. Gina and her students have won more than $140,000 for their school in national computer science competitions.
“I love teaching Computer Science. I don’t expect all my students to be programmers, but it is exciting to see how students with different career interests discover how Computer Science has a role in their career choices. Can you imagine what innovations are to come when you have future health care workers, agriculture professionals, construction workers, engineers and students with other career interests learning Computer Science Principles?” — Gina McCarley

CY: Can you talk about some of the contests you’ve entered and won with your students.

GM: We’ve won several things. The Samsung Solve for Tomorrow competition was the biggest. We won 1st prize in that contest. We had to take a local environmental problem and propose a solution using STEM. It was really a great project-based learning activity. We had students working on all aspects of STEM on that project. We also made a video for a classroom makeover contests and won $42,000 in technology prizes.

CY: That’s amazing. What is your view on competition as learning? Do you think the students are getting valuable learning from this?

GM: It seems to be really successful… The students step up and we treat it as a true project when it begins. I don’t have all the answers and we work as a team. Students seem to work in their own groups where they have their talents and they get to see all aspects of the project, so it’s really been good for the kids. Carol, I know you’ve been teaching for a few years. How have you seen computer science change over the past few years?

CY: In the state of Alabama, when I started teaching CS eight years ago, I was shocked that there were only two other schools in the whole state that taught computer science. Having come out of industry, where everyone I knew was in the computer science field, I was just shocked. Over the last few years, Dr. Grey at the University of Alabama in particular has been instrumental in getting more schools teaching computer science and more teachers trained to teach it. The numbers are amazing. We have so many more students in the state taking CS than we did just 5 years ago.

GM: I wanted to ask you a question about the Computer Science Principles class. I know you teach at a school of fine arts. Could you talk to us about how your students have reacted to that class and how the success of that class has been at your school?

Carol Yarbrough, a computer science teacher at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, and many others participated in professional development training for Computer Science Principles in 2013. [Credit: Jeff Gray]
“The 100 Teacher’s Workshop in 2014 was a fantastic professional development experience for me. I had an opportunity to meet other Computer Science teachers and learn about some of the exciting things they are doing in their classrooms.” — Carol Yarbrough

CY: Until CS Principles, 95% of my students were math and science majors. But now that the state has offered math credit for it, I have a waiting list of arts kids that want to take Computer Science Principles and it’s been just amazing. The arts students look at things in a very different way than the math and science students do. It’s fun! They really have a keen sense of design and aesthetics and they look at things so differently than my traditional math and science kids do. It’s just a lot of fun and I expect to have big demand next year as well.

GM: I know we teach in totally different school environments, but I’ve had the same success in my school. In our county, our largest employer shut down last year, so CS Principles, it’s something fun that’s actually giving my students hope for a job, a career, something new that they might discover their talents in… The great thing about CS Principles is it’s not just coding. I love to see that someone who wants to major in agronomy can see how computer science plays a role; and our students who are interested in the medical fields can see the role that computer science plays. It’s really been good for opening their eyes to see that CS is not just coding. There’s a whole spectrum of things involved.

A conversation between Jeff Baker, Huntsville High School in Huntsville, AL and Neil Plotnick, Everett High School, Everett, MA

Neil Plotnick: What has been the most exciting thing that a student has done [in your classes]?

Jeff Baker: When we get to the point where they collaboratively work on a computer program of their own design and later expand on that and do an individual design, just watching the excitement and enthusiasm of the students is always fun because they always want to immediately bring their program up to me and say, ‘Mr. Baker, let me show you what I’ve done so far.’

NP: It’s a great thing when they see that accomplishment. It doesn’t matter what the project is. We were doing something with cascading style sheets and a student said: ‘How come my background is black and my text is black? What do I have to do there?’ I said, ‘I’m not going to give you the answer, you have to figure it out because part of learning computer science is getting really frustrated sometimes.’ But that’s healthy. It’s healthy to be frustrated because once you’ve made this mistake, you know to look for it the next time and you won’t make it and you’ll be able to help somebody else. Do you have any messages for teachers who are thinking about teaching computer science?

“The time spent in Washington gave me a boost of confidence and encouraged me to vigorously evangelize for CS education. I have met with my State Senator and have been working with his staff on ways to further CS programs here in Massachusetts.” — Neil Plotnick, a computer science teacher at Everett High School in Everett, Massachusetts [Photo by: Matt West]

JB: That’s funny. I’m a math teacher by background. I don’t have a computer science major. Somebody in my school district came to me and said, ‘We’re trying to get more AP courses in our school. Do you want to teach the AP Java class?’ I’m like, ‘Um, I really don’t know if I’m qualified to do that. The only programming background I have is Fortran and very limited at that.’ And they were like, ‘Oh, it will be okay. You’ll be fine.’ So I went to some summer training and really was way behind the curve my first year and it was very intimidating because it was a completely new field. But my advice to other teachers is: Go for it anyway. Push yourself and get into this field of educating people in computer science, because, a) I think computer science is very important and b) I think it’s attainable. It’s something that most people can do…

Jeff Baker, a computer science teacher at Huntsville High School in Huntsville, Alabama

NP: When I took the Exploring Computer Science professional development course, I remember as a cohort we went through eight lessons over the course of the week, teaching each other different things, as teachers. Only three of those eight lessons had us using a computer. And I was somewhat taken aback because that’s not the way I was taught computer science… The process of thinking, looking at a problem and working with others — it’s very much that 21st century teaching that we keep hearing about, whether its math, science, social studies, it doesn’t matter. These kinds of critical skills of collaboration, communication and working together through a problem is the way to go, and it makes the class a lot more enjoyable, the kids aren’t sitting there silently. There’s a lot of conversation between the students, and as they’re teaching each other, they’re learning from each other.

JB: One of the biggest takeaways we get from teaching computer science to our students is, it increases their level of tenacity. As you write a program, there is an evolution that takes place. You don’t necessarily expect it to work correctly the first time. But then you get to go through the debugging and the testing process and you get to find and correct your own mistakes, and then you get to visually see those corrections happening and you get immediate feedback, which is not something that you can get in some of the other courses that I’ve taught. Just watching the students develop a level of ‘stick-with-it-ness’, has been really exciting for me.

A conversation between Jessica Parsons, Milton High School, Milton, Massachusetts and David Petty, Winchester High School in Winchester, Massachusetts

David Petty: Jessica, I had a question for you. We both have been teaching CS for quite a while. Where do you think CS education is going? Are you optimistic?

Jessica Parsons: I’m optimistic. I know we’ve both been working closely on the Massachusetts standards for CS and technology. I think Massachusetts values it, and I see that our work hopefully will increase participation for all students in the state. I hope it’s something that all students in Massachusetts will take, and hopefully, throughout the country, it’s something that will be a requirement for students or just something that most students are taking very soon… How has your experience this year been teaching Exploring Computer Science?

Jessica Parsons, a computer science teacher in Milton High School, Milton, Massachusetts
“Through this event, some female students in the school’s Young Women’s group have expressed interest in Computer Science, and I have arranged for a female minority Software Engineer come and speak with the group.” — Jessica Parsons

DP: This is my first time. You’ve done it more than once, right?

JP: Twice.

DP: I think that one of the things that’s most enthralled me is the fact that I had a bunch of people who never would’ve thought of [taking] computer science and are completely engaged with what’s going on... How about you?

JP: I really enjoy teaching ECS. I often I check in with students and ask: ‘How are you enjoying this class?’ And they say, ‘Interesting, fun, cool, I wish I’d taken this class earlier so I could take more computer science classes.’ It’s been a great experience. And the professional development has been effective in all my classes, not just ECS.

DP: You taught AP CS for a while, as have I. Did anything surprise you teaching AP CS as opposed to Exploring Computer Science?

JP: No. But it’s changed my AP CS A class. It can be taught in some of these ways that I do in Exploring Computer Science. And the kids that have taken Exploring Computer Science and are transitioning to CS A — the transition is much easier for them. It allows opportunities for students who may not have had success in AP CS A.

DP: I agree with that. I feel like there’s a population of students that take AP CS A, that really have no background. Those students who don’t have any prior knowledge feel left out. By perhaps taking ECS, they will have done iteration, and done some Scratch and done problem-solving and breaking down the problem — all those ECS things will give them that leg up. That’s what I’m hoping for.

JP: Also, because students in ECS work on pair programming and collaborative work, when they come to AP CS A, they automatically default to, ‘Let me work with someone else and see if they can help me out because they have different strategies that I may not have thought of before.’ They rely on each other a lot more.

DP: I agree with that. I feel like there’s a population of students that take AP CS A, that really have no background. Those students who don’t have any prior knowledge feel left out. By perhaps taking ECS, they will have done iteration, and done some Scratch and done problem-solving and breaking down the problem — all those ECS things will give them that leg up. That’s what I’m hoping for.

JP: Also, because students in ECS work on pair programming and collaborative work, when they come to AP CS A, they automatically default to, ‘Let me work with someone else and see if they can help me out because they have different strategies that I may not have thought of before.’ They rely on each other a lot more.

DP: I’m glad you mentioned that, because the mechanics of the class are just a surprising thing for me… Every single person in the class is used to working with every single other person in the class. And that is such a huge benefit to all of my classes.

Want to hear from more computer science teachers about their experiences. Check out these videos:

Follow the conversation about CS education at : #CSEdWeek