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Harnessing Existing Interest in Computer Science Education

2011 February 24
by Hélène Martin

I know a lot of people who are interested in being involved in high school computer science.  People who leave their desk for an hour in the middle of the day to go help out in a classroom.  People who mentor teenage interns.  People who call me from across the country to ask how I got into teaching.  People who are truly brilliant teachers.  And people who have training as well as experience.  What can we do to better harness that energy?

One of the things that each of us already teaching (in larger districts) can do is to work with our districts to replicate our programs in other local schools.  The presence of one successful CS program can have a snowball effect if the right people are brought to the table.  In Washington state, Career and Technical Education directors and pathway leaders can be incredibly powerful allies since they establish district-wide vision for CTE courses and allocate some funding accordingly.  They know all the schools and principals and can make suggestions as to where a CS program might fit.  In Seattle Public Schools, we already have another excellent, dedicated computer science instructor in place and are hoping to keep expanding to more schools.

I think there already does exist a very powerful system for giving computer science students a love of teaching and for providing them with the very targeted skills necessary to successfully teach computer science material — teaching assistant programs.  Most of the high school CS teachers I know were TAs at some point and I was greatly influenced by my time in UW’s undergraduate TA program which involves a teaching seminar that covers grading strategies, addressing difficult students, teaching particularly difficult topics and so on.  Stanford has a class with over 80 students learning to teach computer science.  I’m sure that every year, several graduates of those kinds of programs seriously think about going into high school teaching but the lack of obvious mentors and clear positions scares them away.  This is something I don’t know how to address — how can we make it easier for those kinds of students to find high school teacher mentors and help them navigate the certification and job-finding process in their particular area?  For me, connections through the UW computer science department’s outreach program were critical.  I also ended up cold-calling several people at the district and various schools.  I’d be curious to know how other computer science teachers found their positions and figured out the certification process.

In Seattle, we have well-trained computer scientists with teaching certificates ready to step into the classroom.  Our ability to expand is dictated by district and school budgets — right now, in order to create a CS position, something else has to go.  I think part of the trick to address this involves creating student demand.  As students hear about interesting things their friends at other schools are working on, they may start talking to their parents about wanting to take CS classes and PTAs are another critical ally able to sway school offerings.

Obviously, not everyone interested in CS education wants to make it into their full-time job.  I’ve had the opportunity to play matchmaker and help friends find computer science classrooms to volunteer in but I wonder what kind of response a formalized system for matching high school CS teachers with speakers and volunteers might get.  Of course, relying on existing social networks has the benefit of providing a vetting process but it would be interesting to see how many people would like to be involved with youth learning computer science but just don’t know how to get started.  Maybe if companies saw several of their employees getting involved in high school education they would be more willing to take a page out of Microsoft’s book and mentor high school interns.

There’s a lot of existing energy around high school computer science education and I think those of us in that field have a responsibility to harness and augment it.  What else should we be doing?

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Mark permalink
    February 24, 2011

    Schools need to think long and hard about when a teaching certificate is truly needed, and when it isn’t. It seems absurd, for example, that most CS university professors would be considered “unqualified” to teach a CS class in the public school system.

    Put simply, legislators need to make it easier for qualified individuals to teach specialized high school classes, part-time, without a teaching certificate.

    • Hélène Martin permalink*
      February 24, 2011

      Agreed that’s absurd. That said, I think that in most states, it’s not actually that hard to get a qualified person into the classroom if one can figure out the right people to talk to. I guess that’s part of what frustrates me — why is it so hard to find the right information?

  2. Garth permalink
    February 25, 2011

    Then there is the other issue, unqualified certified teachers teaching CS. In Montana a business degree gets a CS certification. Our present Programming I teacher is the business teacher. After several years of on-the-job learning he does a great job of teaching Prog I, without ever taking a programming class.

    • Hélène Martin permalink*
      March 1, 2011

      While I find it incredibly impressive that people without formal training in computer science are able to offer great computing classes, I don’t think it’s really fair to either the students or the instructors in question. I’d rather see concerted efforts to bring computer scientists into teaching than to train existing teachers to teach computing. That said, I’m excited to see people who choose to add computing to their skills and share that with their students.

  3. March 1, 2011

    I really like your description of a “formalized system for matching high school CS teachers with speakers and volunteers.” That “snowball effect” can happen, but it might happen more efficiently with some sort of wider visibility. I am in the “hour in the middle of the day” volunteer demographic, and I got there by doing my own poking around to see what opportunities there were. As a result, after a few years, word got around, and after some mild recruiting efforts, there are similar volunteer classrooms at a few other schools around the county.
    But it’s all ad hoc. We three or four volunteers all communicate and share ideas with each other, but both that original startup process and the ongoing teaching environments are pretty informal. (To an extent, I think that is actually *more* effective; see “Teaching When No One Is Watching”.)

    • Hélène Martin permalink*
      March 1, 2011

      Totally agree that informal teaching/learning opportunities are incredibly powerful. But those don’t happen unless there are willing mentors around!

      I’m glad that you were excited enough about bringing your knowledge to high schoolers to poke and prod until you found opportunities. And thanks for blogging about it — I get to learn and grow from your experiences, too!

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