Last December, Code Haven held our first ever conference, TeachTech, for K-8 educators interested in teaching computer science and coding, on Saturday, December 9th. We’ve been planning the event since September, so it was awesome to see it come to fruition. Here’s why we planned it, what happened on the day of, and our takeaways.
Why We Did It
Code Haven is a Yale student organization that teaches introductory computer science and coding to New Haven middle schools. We started off as a group of friends trying to help one teacher in one school, and quickly grew into a formal student organization. By our second semester, we’d jumped from serving 14 students to over 80. At the time, New Haven didn’t have any sort of district wide middle school computer science curriculum. Although individual schools had coding clubs and the like, we encountered many teachers looking for ways to bring coding to their students.
When creating our vision for the next year last August, we knew we wanted to hold a large event — something that reached more people than we were able to reach on a weekly basis in our classrooms. We spent a while debating between a student coding night (with demos, hands on activities, and lessons related to coding) and a conference for teachers. Ultimately, we decided that a a teacher event would have a larger impact, because each teacher we reached would reach many students.
Our Mission: to inclusively increase access to computer science among middle school students, regardless of previous interest
We were afraid no teachers would want to spend a Saturday listening to college students, but there were three main things that convinced us to try:
In March 2017, we’d been invited to and attended Wallingford Girls Coding Night. There, we ran the activity we start all Code Haven classes with, present-wrapping robots, in which a couple people pretend to be robots, and students shout out instructions to wrap a present. The robots try to be as difficult as possible: an instruction to “put tape on it” might cause one to put the entire roll of tape on the box.
Afterwards, the Wallingford tech teachers remarked that though they could easily implement things like Code.org and Tynker, they had a hard time finding good in-person activities like the present wrapping one, and that if we ever had a workshop on these types of demos, they’d gladly come.
Secondly, we regularly receive emails from teachers throughout CT interested in having Code Haven lessons, but they’re just too far away for us to reach on a weekly basis. We wanted to give those teachers the resources and activities they could use to start adding computer science activities to their classrooms.
Finally, we wanted to start a community of computer science educators in New Haven. Caitlin, one of our board members, had attended a Connecticut Computer Science Teacher’s Association meeting, where there were very few New Haven attendees. Our goal was to provide a space for educators interested in CS to meet and network.
This is what we put together.
[You can find videos of some of the sessions HERE]
We provided bagels and coffee for attendees, and space to mingle as everyone arrived. Then, we kicked off with a presentation by Annie and Claire, who introduced Code Haven as an organization and our goals for TeachTech. Next, Nathaniel Granor, a lead program manager for Microsoft TEALS, gave a keynote about reasons why students should learn computer science, including the benefits of computational thinking, future economic potential and career opportunities, and the importance of being a digital citizen.
Then, Omid presented an introduction to computer science fundamentals, including algorithms, loops, conditionals, variables and functions, and showed the demos we use to teach them in the classroom. He started off with the present wrapping activity, moved into a dance we use to teach loops, and then another dance to practice conditionals. He also explained the ideals Code Haven tries to keep in mind and how that informs the activities and softwares we choose. For instance, this year we’ve switched from using the Code.Org accelerated curriculum to CS in SF’s MIT App Inventor curriculum, because we wanted students to be able to build on their own projects instead of completing predefined puzzles.
After that, we had workshops on tools and frameworks teachers could use in the classroom. Ellis taught a workshop on MIT App Inventor, where she explained how the software worked, and our experiences (and the benefits and drawbacks) using it this semester. Amanda and Xiu taught about Code.org, where they talked about the differences between the various courses, and how to implement them in the classroom. Caitlin taught Scratch, speaking about the various educator resources and giving participants a chance to create their own projects. Annie taught CS Unplugged, computer science activities that don’t require a computer, and showed activities to teach binary search, binary number representation, and error detection and correction.
Then came lunch, where we wanted to give a chance participants to talk to each other about what they’d learned in the morning. We’d debated having specific rooms/signs for K-5, 5–8, and administrators, but ultimately decided to just let the mingling happen organically, though we had a table of Code Haven mentors so people could learn more about our program.
After lunch, we had a series of short talks by computer science educators.
Dr. Heidi Gold-Dworkin, CEO of Little Scientists, spoke about her experience running after school coding clubs, emphasizing the importance of having students help each other learn the material. She showed a video of two of her students programming a lego robot.
Jason Ward, a STEM Discovery Lab teacher, brought some of the robots he uses in the classroom for different age groups and demonstrated how they worked, including a Nao robot that danced to a pop medley. He also talked about how he worked with other teachers to plan activities that combined programming projects with what the students were currently learning.
Greg Mittleider, a former middle school computer science teacher, told us about his journey from teaching students to use Microsoft Excel to discovering Harvard’s CS50 introduction to computing and programming course. He became the first teacher to have a CS50 AP class for middle school students.
Kristina Waldron, an Infotech teacher, talked about the process of holding a Girls Coding Night (the same one that inspired us to hold TeachTech!). She explained how the idea developed when they noticed the gender gap in CS classes at the high school level in Wallingford. She then got the administration on board, found a space and speakers, and invited girls and their parents.
We followed that with a Q and A panel with the case study presenters and Nathaniel, our keynote speaker. Omid moderated as attendees asked specific questions regarding finding funding, what previous experience they had, and more.
Finally, we had a talk about Diversity and Inclusion in CS education by Sanya and Caitlin.
From the beginning, Code Haven has felt extremely strongly that our lessons should be accessible and enjoyable for everyone. Sanya and Caitlin spoke about the current state of the field, and what K-8 educators could do to change that. They recommended making activities required instead of optional, so that students who might feel that CS isn’t for them would explore it. They also talked about the benefits of pair programming, partner work, and connecting students’ outside interests to projects and assignments.
We ended with time for participants to fill out a feedback survey, asking them to rate the helpfulness and relevancy of all the presentations. We then raffled off prizes donated by our sponsors.
Overall, we’re really pleased with how the event went. Educators seemed to have a great time, and many people came up to us afterwards to tell us that we’d done a great job, and that they’d had a good time.
Looking at our original goals, we do think we provided attendees with resources to achieve them. That being said, it was our first conference, and we have room to improve.
Things We Would Change
As luck would have it, TeachTech was held during the first major snowstorm in CT that winter, and the forecasts and weather warnings definitely kept the majority of people outside of New Haven from attending. We kept receiving emails the night before from people telling us they couldn’t make it because of the weather. Luckily, we’d already planned to record all the sessions, so we were able to tell them we could send them videos and slides. Of course, watching a video is very different from watching a live presentation, and our guess is that most people who received the slides and videos didn’t go through them thoroughly.
There isn’t much we could have done to prevent weather issues (having a snow day reservation would have required booking twice as many rooms ($$$), and asking for two days of commitments from our speakers), but perhaps in the future, we’d hold TeachTech earlier in the fall.
In a way, we were also lucky to get less turnout than we’d expected. There were logistical snarls we hadn’t fully ironed out (how to get people from workshop to workshop, where to set up lunch), and having less people reduced our day of organizational stress. It also made for a more intimate environment.
From the beginning, we struggled to define TeachTech’s intended audience. As college students, we definitely didn’t want to tell professional educators how to teach. Instead, we wanted to focus on what we knew — introductory computer science (many of us are computer science and related majors), the resources out there for teaching it, and the activities and demonstrations we use in our lessons.
That meant that we were aiming for professional educators who were new to computer science. When we sent out initial interest forms, our audience ranged from people with no experience to experienced CS teachers. We didn’t really know who we were aiming for, and tried to hit a middle ground, warning experienced teachers that they might not learn much new information.
Ultimately, we think TeachTech’s programming this year was most useful for someone who had a bit of coding experience, but wanted an overview of the tools and resources out there and some personal experiences. To make our programming more effective in the future, we’d do two things:
- Allot more time for workshops. These showcased Code Haven’s strengths, and we only had 30 minutes for them in the schedule, which didn’t leave enough time for people to ask questions or to get into more complicated demos. In the survey, many attendees said they needed more time. Next time, we’d cut time from the general introduction to fundamentals, and move it to the workshops, which allow for more hands on practice, and also give attendees more concrete skills to take away.
- Shorten case study presentations and/or run multiple at the same time. The nature of a case study is that it’s very specific. That meant that for someone looking to host a coding night, hearing about the planning process would be really helpful. But then, a teacher trying to create weekly lessons might not learn relevant information in that presentation. In our final survey, participant ratings of case study presentation relevancy varied widely. To remedy this, we would either make all presentations shorter, and include a greater variety, or create tracks, with multiple presentations running at the same time. That way, participants would be able to choose the presentation most relevant to their interests.
A Digression: Personal Reflection
In May 2016, Professor Angluin told me about a Yale CS alum who’d asked for a current undergrad interested in teaching local students how to code. She connected me with Nathaniel Granor, who introduced me to Dave Weinreb. Dave explained that he had a class of bilingual students who’d all been in the US for less than three years, and wanted them to learn how to code. I roped Dennis in, and Code Haven was born.
Code Haven has been my life for the last year and a half (which sounds like nothing, but in college years, feels like forever). Through leading it, I’ve learned about the state of computer science education, how to stand at the front of a classroom and keep attention, and how to convince teachers and administrators to take a chance on you. I’ve learned how to lead meetings, make organizational goals, motivate people, and scramble to pull things together.
I’ve also learned about the importance of sustainability. When Dennis and I were starting Code Haven, we often went to our faculty advisor, Professor Angluin, for advice. She warned us that many student groups only last a couple years and fall apart once their leadership graduates.
So last semester, I took a look back at what I’d done as president, and what I’d hoped to accomplish. There were still hard problems our team hadn’t solved (we have ~14 weeks, an hour a week; how do we decide what’s most important for students to learn, and how do we maximize that learning?), still more things I wanted to improve (how to involve more mentors in creating the curriculum), but I could see that my time was up. I wanted what we’d built to last, and to do that, I needed to let go. Dennis and I had gathered a group of incredible board members who cared as much as we did about the mission, and we could trust that they’d make Code Haven even better.
Last week, I attended the first Code Haven board meeting I didn’t make an agenda for, and left really excited about what the new board has planned for the upcoming months. Darwin Leuba, Taylor Harris, and Caitlin Westerfield are organizing a project fair where students will present the apps they’ve been working on over the year. Claire Gorman and Daniel Urke are creating the curriculum and materials students will use to prepare for the fair. Amanda Lee is creating a Code Haven newsletter (subscribe here) and continuing outreach on our Facebook page (like here). Ellis Burgoon Miskell will continue coordinating mentors and classrooms, and Sanya Nijhawan and Omid Rooholfada will be leading as co-presidents.
For me, starting Code Haven was the beginning of a lesson that I could see an issue and try to help, without knowing everything (or even most things).
In the beginning, Dennis and I would plan lessons on Thursday at 10 pm for a class the next morning, and explain the plan at the bus stop on the way to Fair Haven. But as we figured things out and brought other people on board, we gained experience and our lessons got better. Code Haven still has a lot of room to improve, but we’ve also come a long way. TeachTech showed me that there were educators who wanted to see what we had to say, who came to Yale in a blizzard to hear it, and was the perfect closure.
TeachTech was run by Code Haven’s Fall 2017 board, which consisted of Ellis Burgoon Miskell, Annie Chen, Xiu Chen, Dennis Duan, Claire Gorman, Amanda Lee, Sanya Nijhawan, Omid Rooholfada, and Caitlin Westerfield. It was directed by Sanya Nijhawan and Caitlin Westerfield
We’d like to thank:
- Dave Weinreb, Nathaniel Granor, Claudia Merson, Maria Parente, Dana Angluin, and Emmanuel Schanzer for their wisdom and advice.
- Greg Mittleider, Dr. Heidi Gold-Dworkin, Kristina Waldron, and Jason Ward for their case study presentations
Code Haven is a Yale student organization that teaches New Haven middle school students introductory computer science and coding. Every week, Code Haven mentors teach computing lessons at several schools in the New Haven district, engaging the students with online lessons, group activities, and class-wide demonstrations. This year, we are using MIT App Inventor to teach in 7 classrooms across 5 schools, reaching over 120 students.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to Ellis Burgoon Miskell, Shivam Sarodia, and Brian Yu for proofreading and suggestions