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Preparing Students for the Future of Computer Science

This was my experience upon meeting my Professor of Physics, Dr. Ronald Brown. His teaching philosophy was summed up in three letters: F-U-N! Dr. Brown taught with such enthusiasm and passion while connecting technology, hands-on experiences, and real-world applications. His mentorship and passion led me to where I am today.

I began my educational journey at a small university in New York, State University of New York at Oswego. I teach both Middle and Upper School computer science at Providence Day. This is my 21st year in education and my 11th year teaching computer science.

Growing up in the dot-com era, I have lived through many technology transitions including dial-up to high- speed internet, wall phones to cell phones, cassette players to streaming music, and today where everything is accessible from one device at your fingertips.

Thinking back to my early career in the classroom, the thought of integrating technology was still an emerging concept. I could sense the macro vision of how technology was changing our lives outside of the classroom, the pervasion of cell phones being a lasting example.

As we were living through this massive technological revolution in the late 1990s, where northern Virginia was considered the Silicon Valley of the East Coast, digital implementation seemed like more of an impediment. While society (and seemingly the world) was swirling with shiny new technologies, our teaching methods remained antiquated.

When I examined how we spent our time in the classroom, I asked myself, ‘How will this prepare our students for the future?’ In comparison, we were working in a model that was similar to what I experienced in school years before; most schools were equipped with one computer lab and would require a reservation to use the lab during the week.

I knew change was inevitable and I wanted to be at the forefront of this technological revolution! My goal was to leverage technology so that students could have the opportunity to explore their dreams, desires, and interests in a digital space. I was excited about seeking out and learning how to implement digital tools, and continually worked to revise the structure of my curriculum.

I also realized the enormity of the task. Knowledge and expertise centered around teaching with technology existed, and I wanted to be a part of it. I was excited. I was motivated. I knew I needed support, a community, a cohort of teachers that could work towards expanding the current boundaries. I researched several universities in the northern Virginia area and found what I was looking for. I completed my master’s in Technology and Instruction from George Mason University.

I have spent more than a decade working as a computer science teacher. Twelve years ago, I discovered a program called Berkeley Logo, a simple software program that was created by the University of California at Berkeley, to teach and motivate students to code. Students were immersed in an environment in which they coded a turtle to move around a screen by writing out simple commands. With this fairly easy concept, students learned how to create basic programs and had fun with them.

I then discovered Alice 3, an animation software in which students could create and build their own 3D stories and games. In an effort to bring their imaginations to life, we discovered many bugs along the way (and still do!).

The Alice software project continues to pick up momentum, evolve, and improve and is widely adopted in schools and universities. Duke University offers a course for freshmen as an introduction to computer science, as well as Carnegie Mellon University where the project was initiated.

Debunking the old stereotype that to be a computer programmer you needed to be a “nerdy” math genius, Berkeley Logo and Alice 3 have effortlessly created a coding space for students to be creative, without getting bogged down with formulas and calculations.

This year, we are experimenting with the VR (virtual reality) version of Alice 3. Imagine a software where you can build and code your own story or game, immerse yourself in that world, and actively be the character in your story! Transcending your ideas into a virtual space has never been more exciting and attainable.

I had read articles about Providence Day School and understood that their focus on digital engagement and future innovations was a priority and reality. I applied to be a computer science teacher because I wanted to join a community of educators who recognized the importance of logical reasoning, critical thinking, and digital competence.

I cannot be more thankful to be working with such an incredible team. James Reeder, Todd Johnson, Carol Lawrence, and I collaborate often and support each other through our evolving curriculum. We strive to focus on the innovation and future of computer science and prioritize what best practices for our students.

Having a community of educators by my side who are professional, focused, driven, and respectful of each other, and who recognize students’ unique values and customize instruction to unlock individual potential, makes Providence Day an exciting place to work. I’ve also been fortunate to find a community of educators, including Dr. Susan Rodger from Duke University and Vu Nguyen from Carnegie Mellon, who continue to support my efforts in bringing relevant, purposeful learning to students. Eric Brown, Director of Alice at Carnegie Mellon, has expressed gratitude for our collaborative efforts to improve the Alice program over the past ten years. I have learned early that you have to surround yourself with people who provide knowledge pieces because there is always so much more to learn.

A recent classroom scene: I hear an emphatic ‘YES!’ and look up to see two students high fiving, smiling hugely, and letting out a sigh of gratifying relief. Collaboratively, they have spent the majority of the class period coding and troubleshooting an app to work properly. Their celebration of teamwork and success is not rare, but rather a continuation of their learning process in our AP Computer Science Principles class.

AP Computer Science Principles is an Upper School course that not only teaches students how to code but about how to creatively address real-world issues with the tools and processes of computer science. Students are challenged to create, design, and code an app that could potentially be submitted into a prestigious competition, the Congressional App Challenge.

Intending to highlight the value of computer science education, this competition is offered to all students in grades six through 12. We have had several students from Providence Day place in this competition in which students are awarded prizes for their app creations, and the first place winner is invited to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress along with software developers and sponsors. Coding and computational thinking are an integral part of our world. The skills students develop and practice in this course will provide students with limitless opportunities and infinite possibilities.

“Everyone in this country should learn how to program because it teaches you how to think.” –Apple Founder Steve Jobs

Loud squeals of excitement are heard often in our EV3 Robotics class to celebrate successes. If you visited our classroom, you would be greeted with a brief hello, and students would invite you to join the class, but would return to intensely focusing on the task at hand. Students spend time building, coding, and interacting with their bots. While students are focused and engaged in assembling robots, they are sharing tips and tricks to get their structure, motors, and sensors to all work together most efficiently and to be the “coolest” bot in the room.

Discussions are facilitated by asking questions “If you had a robot, what would you like it to do?” and “Do you think robots will take over
the world one day?” By the end of the course, students are responsible for building multiple autonomous robots that complete a variety of tasks. During the fall semester, students spent time with Todd Johnson’s Upper School CAD class to design and develop a theme park ride.

The design process included prototyping and building a structure that could detect a signal and respond with movement, and designing and printing an embellishment from our 3D printer to attach to the structure. Accuracy and precision were imperative and students learned quickly the concept of scaling. The culmination of the project included a theme park ride display for all of their peers and teachers to see. Students were filled with pride and a sense of accomplishment as their peers crowded around the display.

Broadcast Media is a new elective this year and is quickly gaining popularity. Students are immersed in filming techniques including capturing the best camera shots and learning how to use editing software to produce the most epic videos.

It is gratifying to see students’ creativity and excitement when given the opportunity to share their perspectives and interests. We laugh (a lot), have honest conversations about trending topics, and students learn how to deliver information in the most sincere and entertaining way. Students realize the amount of work and dedication that goes into production, and a student recently expressed to me, “This is my favorite class! I look forward to it all day.”

Throughout my educational journey, I have realized that it is the people who make a “job” not feel like work. The unconditional support from our computer science team, and our administrators, Michael Magno, Lee Tappy, Eric Hedinger, and James Reeder, takes effort and does not go unnoticed. Accepting invitations to class events, visiting our classrooms, helping us to scout and obtain resources, and sharing in our student’s excitement and successes is a bonus to our students’ learning.

Most recently, with an exciting renovation project for IDEAS@PD in the works, I was asked, “If this computer science space was to undergo a makeover, what do you envision? What would you need to make your teaching experience the most impactful for our students?” This question illustrates PD’s commitment to empowered learners.

I pause to think about the question, “Why do you teach?” My pause reflects the many reasons why but one thing that stands out is student connections and witnessing their “aha” moments. The questions that motivate me and help to refine my teaching strategies are, ‘What are the infinite possibilities? What are we doing now and how far can we go? How can I meet a student at their level and unlock their potential?’

I want students to skip into my classroom ready to be inspired, challenged, and motivated to learn. I hope that when students leave my classroom, they are pondering the task for tomorrow and feel confident that they have the tools and resources to advance towards a solution.

The golden moments of my day include real conversations with students about how they are processing and thinking about solving an issue and hearing the explanation from students about techniques they have already tried, and what the next steps will be. Watching students work to configure and reconfigure, witnessing collaboration, and guiding students to make real-world connections continues to motivate me.

I heard recently from a parent who works at Providence Day, “You unlocked a side of my son that I’ve never seen before; I’m so excited to see where this goes.”

It’s awesome. I smile about that and I look forward to our new IDEAS@PD space!

  • computer science
  • Faculty & Staff
  • Providence Day Magazine
  • Rebecca Roemer