By Ruth S. Kyle, Counselor for Computing
“So, which one of you lost a bet? No one goes to Duluth willingly!”
That was the light-hearted remark my co-worker Jennifer and I received from the gate agent the morning we left Midland to come to the Counselors for Computing Workshop in collaboration with Mobile CSP in Duluth, Minnesota. Our flight was delayed due to weather in Chicago, and we were checking to be sure we would make our connecting flights. We laughed and explained why we were going and he said,
“more people need to know about how many opportunities there are in computer science — for instance, somebody has to program these systems to get you to where you need to go!”
We were already excited about the opportunity to go to a professional development program where this topic is covered and we would receive lots of free resources and swag. Who doesn’t like free stuff?! But to know that other people recognized the need to get the word out about computer science was a bonus.
Duluth was beautiful — both the scenery and the people. Our “Lyft” driver, Tom, had a sign to greet us, was very courteous, and very informative about the area. We were speechless at the beauty of Tower Hall as we drove onto the College of St. Scholastica campus. After having a day of travel that began at 4:00am for us, we were glad to know that we did not have any activities that required a lot of brain power that evening! The organizers held an app-based campus scavenger hunt, which was a neat way to explore the campus and get some exercise after a day of travel.
The real work began the next morning. As a veteran of many workshops and staff development experiences, I was really pleased that we took off running that Monday morning by creating electronic name tags and never really stopped until it was time to pack up to go on Wednesday. My head is still buzzing about all the things I experienced and learned in at this unique 2.5 day professional development program!
To kick off the program, we made light-up name tags using Chibitronics. Program facilitators Angela Cleveland and Bobbi-Jo Wathen encouraged us and helped us think through ways that this could be used at any grade level and for a variety of purposes. We all agreed that the elementary students would nail it pretty quickly! We also got to experience the frustration level that some of our students face when they are learning a second language and, for most of us computer science is a second language. The term “Digital Natives” was used to describe those who have grown up utilizing technology, whereas a lot of us are “Digital Immigrants” and have had to pick up the lingo and systems.
Participants had the opportunity to try their hand at coding in a couple of platforms. The first one we used was Code.org. Using the blocks to code rather than typing made the activity feel more like a game than a learning experience! However, branching out to design my own code was a little frustrating, mainly because I’m a perfectionist and wanted to be “right” the first time.
Bobbi-Jo and Angela reminded me that writing code is about problem-solving and having a growth mindset.
This was a repeated theme throughout the program, and it resonated with me when I struggled with the code. For example, as counselors, we often talk to students about their career aspirations.
One of the questions Angela and Bobbi-Jo suggested to use to get students thinking about their future is not the standard “What do you want to be when you grow up” but rather, “What problems do you want to solve?”
That statement put me back into a more forgiving mindset, and I was able to complete the coding task. This is a relatable lesson for students. I was so focused on getting the code to run correctly the first time, and when it didn’t my frustration overshadowed the experience. When I reminded myself that the process is about the journey more than the destination, I was able to see my broken code as one step closer to success.
After writing code, we delved deeper into designing an app. Jennifer Rosato from the National Center for Computer Science Education at the College of St. Scholastica led us through a tutorial and set us loose on our tablets to design an app using MIT App Inventor. This activity was a little easier since the first coding exercise built up our skillsets. As educators, we immediately connected about the experience of having a tech problem and saying, “There should be/probably is an app for that!” But we may perceive it as something that “someone somewhere else writes.” And we wait for that magical day. But the reality is — we can write that app — after all, what problems do we want to solve? Using MIT App Inventor shifted our mindset from being users of technology to developers.
Our third coding activity was an unplugged activity. Don’t think you can teach coding without a computer? Think again! For this activity, we partnered with a counselor buddy. We each were given a small bag of Legos. One of us was the programmer and the other was the “robot.” As programmers, we first designed a Lego structure out-of-sight of our robot. We then gave our “robot” instructions about how to replicate our structure with the same set of Lego pieces. We learned that we had to be very specific with the description of Lego pieces and sequence of steps to tell our “robot” how to build the identical structure. Robots only do what you tell them, so it’s very important to state in specific terms what you want. Being specific about directions is an excellent way to practice leadership skills and being specific about requests. These are not just coding skills; these are life skills!
The NCWIT Counselors for Computing program featured inspirational guest speakers who made the college and career connection to our learning experiences. Vickie McLain spoke about Cybersecurity and the incredible opportunities in the field for anyone who wants to work to keep our information safe to those who want to work with national defense. Ms. McLain also made several suggestions about how to keep our personal information safe, which resonated with us because every person has a vested interest in cybersecurity. As counselors, we are in the unique position to encourage more young people, especially girls, to explore the field. Did you know that there is a projected 28% growth rate for jobs in cybersecurity and you don’t even need a four-year degree? In my area in Texas, there are two community colleges and one major university within a 20 mile radius that offer a certification or degree in Computer Science. Your local community college or a nearby university offers many certifications that provide a pathway to a sustainable and rewarding career in cybersecurity!
Ms. McLain told us about a young man who makes $140,000 a year staying home and hacking systems to show companies how to keep their systems safe. This job is called a “Penetration Tester,” and it’s perfect for students who think outside the box. Ms. McLain emphasized the need to get more females involved in this field. The necessary skills are the same for men and for women, but women often view some events and opportunities a little differently and having that viewpoint can often be helpful in the computing field and especially in cybersecurity.
After the program, I returned to my school and was immediately able to get some of the girls on my campus interested in robotics and the possibilities involved in computer science. I am finding ways to connect the possibilities of computing fields and how every industry needs people with these skills to my students.
As counselors, it’s rare to find professional development that is meaningful, relevant, and connects us with our primary focus to provide equitable educational and career opportunities for ALL students. This program was also a unique opportunity to collaborate with a cross section of counselors from across the country about shared goals. Every participant was thrilled to take their new experience and knowledge back to their districts to offer opportunities and pathways to careers in computer science, especially for those students who are underrepresented in the field.
On a personal level, I thought about my students who were identified as “at risk” of dropping out or making choices that would adversely impact their future. Before this program, I thought of computer science as something some students already interested would excel at, and my eyes were opened to many fields and opportunities to engage ALL students. I started to see computer science as a pathway to hope for students who need to see their potential and aspirations in viable options.
As I share my experiences, I return back to my original experience with the airport gate agent who said, “So, which one of you lost a bet? No one goes to Duluth willingly!” My answer lead to a discussion about the intersection of computer science with transportation. If I were to run into that gate agent today, I would share about all the things I learned, people I met, and transformative professional development experiences in this beautiful location that I had no personal connection to! Now, I can not only share with my students about careers in computer science, but I can also share about a region of this great country I had little exposure to before I had the wonderful opportunity to be part of the National Science Foundation-funded Counselors for Computing Workshop in collaboration with Mobile CSP in Duluth, Minnesota.
Ruth S. Kyle has been a counselor for 25 years in the private and public sector. She is currently working on her LPC certification, is a former national presenter for Active Parenting Publishers, and presented at the National Counselor Conference in Las Vegas.