Barriers to Pair Programming (and solutions!)

A hot topic at the New Mexico Computer Science for All (NM-CSforAll) wrap-up meeting held on January 3rd, 2015 at the Santa Fe Institute was barriers to pair programming. NM-CSforAll has been actively promoting and preparing teachers to use of pair programming and peer instruction with our diverse student population that includes a high percentage of Hispanic and Native American students. Over the past two years we have repeatedly heard from participating teachers that these methods are not easy to implement so we set aside time to discuss the barriers teachers encountered and solutions suggested by fellow CS teachers. Here is what we learned:

  • In general, new CS teachers experienced difficulty supporting the wide range of skill levels among students in their CS class(es). Some students had prior experience in computing while others were totally new to computing. When using the pair programming methodology, sometimes the more experienced student did not want to switch out of the “driver” role. Suggestions to deal with this situation included:
    1. Carefully constructing pairs taking into account the needs and dispositions of each student.
    2. Avoid tracking students based on ability.
    3. Monitoring to make sure students switch roles.
    4. Reiterating benefits of pair programming often.
    5. Practice occasional individual programming and reflect on the difficulties of working entirely alone.
  • Communication with fellow students can be difficult for students from different cultures. Suggested interventions included:
    1. Providing students with pair programming prompts such as “what do you think we should do next?”
    2. Showing videos that demonstrate how to “pair program” such as the one from (See
    3. Practicing and modeling pair programming frequently.
  • Students who come into the class already knowing other students are often unwilling to work with a student they do not know. Suggested solutions included:
    1. Frequently switching the pairings.
    2. Reiterating that pairs will be reassigned often, “it’s not forever.”
    3. Providing students with opportunities for feedback on the pairing and the work produced by the pair.
    4. Using a Gallery walk as an occasion for students to discuss their project with fellow students and find common interests and working styles. Sometimes this leads to new successful partnerships and pairings.

Thanks to the CS teachers who contributed to this discussion: Amanda Dunlap,

Alan Daugherty, Michael Steele, Julie Scott, Rowena Dolino, Melody Hagaman,

Joanna Stitt, Elvira Crockett, Barbara Teterycz, and AnnNet Delaney.

–Irene Lee

CSTA CT Task Force chair

CSTA Computational Thinking (CT) Task Force

Why was the Computational Thinking (CT) Task Force formed?

One of the primary purposes of the CSTA is to support K-12 CS educators. Thus, it’s important that the CSTA be aware of current developments in computer science education, including Computational Thinking (CT), so we can take advantage of new opportunities and new partnerships. The CT Task Force was formed to advise the organization about how to connect with and respond to new Computational Thinking initiatives.

Who are the members of the CT Task Force?

In July 2014, the CT Task Force re-assembled with these members:

Irene Lee, Chair (Santa Fe Institute, Project GUTS)
Fred Martin, Co-Chair (University of Massachusetts Lowell)
J. Philip East (University of Northern Iowa)
Diana Franklin (University of California, Santa Barbara)
Shuchi Grover (Stanford University)
Roxana Hadad (Northeastern Illinois University)
Joe Kmoch (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)
Michelle Lagos (American School of Tegucigalpa)
Eric Snow (SRI International)

What does the CT Task Force do?

This year, we are focusing on CT in K-8 teaching and learning. This is a pressing need, and we would like to understand the scope of what is being called “computational thinking” in K-8: how it is being defined, what tools and curricula are being used to teach computational thinking, and how it is being assessed. Task Force members also participate on related efforts, such as developing proposals for providing professional development in CT through the CSTA.

How does the CT Task Force serve the CSTA membership?

We serve the membership by:

1) Writing, publishing and disseminating papers on CT

2) Coordinating efforts to inform K-8 educators about CT

3) Making presentations on CT at educational conferences

4) Updating the CT webpage on the CSTA website

We welcome suggestions and contributions from the CSTA membership on ways the CT Task Force can better serve you.

New Entrepreneur Unit for CS Classes

At the New Mexico Computer Science for All wrap-up meeting held on January 3rd, 2015, Las Cruces High School CS teacher Elisa Cundiff shared an Entrepreneur Unit that she developed along with her co-teacher, Lauren Curry, and implemented last semester.  (Elisa also recently presented this “nifty assignment” at the NSF-sponsored 100 CS teachers workshop in Washington, DC during CSEdWeek.)

The Entrepreneur Unit was developed for CS classes “because we require a new generation of problem solvers.”  The unit, designed to run for a week but easily extendable, starts with research on current startups with the objective of identifying the problem that each startup is attempting to solve.  Students are then tasked with recording what they are doing at 15 minutes throughout a day and making note of inefficiencies or frustrations they encountered. These problems then become a bank of issues any one of which their startups could attempt to solve.

Next, students brainstorm and select a startup idea and develop an elevator pitch with the knowledge that they would need to pitch it to a real industry executive the following day!  Students finish the unit by researching their industry, their competition, and identifying their competitive advantage; creating a revenue model and discussing potential revenue sources.

For more information on this exciting unit for inclusion in CS classes, go to where Elisa and Lauren have graciously shared all materials associated with this unit.  Thanks to Elisa and Lauren for providing inspirations to CS teachers and being innovators themselves!

Irene Lee, CSTA CT Task Force Chair


Computer Science Reaches Students During Afterschool Clubs

Afterschool clubs can be a productive venue to introduce CS activities that enhance the K-12 experience for students. In addition to ventures into school day integration of CS (such as’s efforts), afterschool programs have many features/affordances that make them a promising venue whether or not CS is offered during the regular school day. In a webinar on Engineering and Computing in Afterschool (Feb 2014), the Afterschool Alliance recently highlighted three afterschool programs that feature computer science and engineering activities: Techbridge in Oakland, CA; Digital Harbor Foundation in Baltimore, MD; and Project GUTS: Growing Up Thinking Scientifically in Santa Fe, NM.

Directors of these programs provided insights into affordances of offering computing and engineering programs during afterschool hours:
– Afterschool programs engage and retain large numbers of students from diverse populations. According to Afterschool Alliance data, 24 percent of African American, 21 percent of Latino, and 16 percent of Native American children attend afterschool programs, above the national average of 15 percent.
– Students have time to build mastery of skills and new technologies. Often in an afterschool setting (that runs from 3pm – 6pm) students will have longer periods of time for project-based work than in a classroom.
– Afterschool programs offer more opportunity to build relationships with parent and guardians.
– STEM professionals and graduate students are often more available to come in or work as facilitators during the afterschool hours (near the end of the work day). Through using science graduate students and/or STEM professionals as mentors and role models, students get exposed to the variety of computing careers that exist. Subsequently, participants gain an increased awareness of career options.
– Afterschool programs can serve as a sandbox for teachers to try different content, approaches and pedagogy. With a less high-stakes environment, teachers have room to explore and learn.

While there are many potential benefits of working within after school hours, one recurring drawback is that afterschool programs do not reach all students and their families. Those who attend afterschool STEM and CS programs are often a self-selected group including many students who already have high STEM and computing interest. To attract a more diverse audience, significant effort needs to be put towards recruitment. For example, Project GUTS’ recruitment of diverse student populations has been achieved through reaching out to the local community at schools. A two-fold recruitment strategy was used. Family CS Nights were offered at a local elementary school to introduce families from underrepresented groups in CS (primarily Hispanic/Latino and low SES) to computer science through hands-on design and build activities in Scratch and StarLogo, and raising awareness of CS as a potential career track for their students. These evening events also served to prime students to look for Project GUTS clubs upon reaching middle schools throughout the city. At local middle schools, information booths were set up and presentations were made at back-to-school nights and school-wide assemblies. Older, near-peer Project GUTS student mentors served as recruiters, and middle school teachers were asked to refer students to Project GUTS. Further discussion of how to bridge from grassroots outreach, approaches to incorporate other methods to share information about CS programs, and resources with parents and students are issues to address in order to improve equity and access to CS programs during afterschool hours.

If others in the CSTA community are interested in or currently offering Afterschool Computer Science programs, we’d love to hear from you!

Irene Lee
CSTA Computational Thinking Task Force Chair
CSTA K-8 Task Force Member