Why I Joined CSTA

I’m one of the co-chairs of the Membership Committee. While all the committees are responsive to members, it’s our job to think about who our members are, what we can do to support them, and how to grow our membership. I joined CSTA about six years ago when I got my first job teaching Computer Science and I had no idea how I was going to do my job, exactly. Sure, there were things online I could refer to, but I needed real people to respond to my questions and reassure me that I wasn’t going to totally fail.

Joining CSTA got me on the email list immediately, which then meant I had thousands of teachers with a variety of experiences that I could tap into. Even if I just read the emails and didn’t directly ask questions of the list, I could get all kinds of information. Joining also gave me access to resources like the standards, curriculum resources, and research. All of these were helpful to me as I planned my courses.

Of course, I wanted to meet some CS teachers in the flesh, so I signed up for the annual conference, which happened to be fairly close by that year. The cost was so reasonable compared to other conferences I had been to in the past. I also signed up for hands-on workshops that gave me in-depth experience that is hard to get outside of a college classroom. The other sessions gave me ideas and information that I use to this day. More importantly, I met people that I am still connected to and often look forward to seeing every year.

After the conference, I found my local CSTA chapter, and became a regular attendee at their meetings where we could have regular conversations about teaching CS or hear speakers talk about different aspects of teaching. I’m still a regular participant in my local chapter, and its members are friends of mine that I regularly rely on for advice and who I look forward to seeing at our monthly meetings. It’s great that I don’t have to wait for the next annual conference to talk with fellow CS teachers.

I have joined many professional organizations over the course of my career, but more than any other, CSTA feels like home. CSTA people are my people. I know when I am with them, they’re going to understand me and be willing to help. Many CS teachers are the only CS teachers in their schools or even districts. Having an affinity group like CSTA can make teachers not feel like they’re not so alone. Just that is extremely important for teachers.

As a co-chair of the Membership Committee, I ask you to think about what membership in CSTA means to you. What has being a member given you? As you think about it, you might be surprised to find out how much you benefit from your CSTA connections. And if you’re not a member, what are you waiting for? Join now!

Disrupting the Gender Gap in Computer Science

On Friday, I’m giving a TED-style talk for our regional school association on what I call the “girl problem” in Computer Science, and how we might fix it. I’ve been preparing for this talk for months, reviewing research about best practices for engaging girls in Computer Science and generally examining the landscape. I work at an all-girls’ school, so you’d think this wouldn’t be an issue for me, but I still have to fight against stereotypes that Computer Science is geeky or boring, and girls’ lack of confidence in their ability to do the work. Once I get them into the classroom, I have a little easier time of it that those of you at co-ed schools. It’s getting them there that’s the challenge. For many of you out there, not only do you have to work to get them there, often you have to work to keep girls in the class and convince them to take the next one. Luckily, there are a lot of smart people out there doing research in this area and every time I turn around, I swear I’m seeing a new report on ways of engaging girls in Computer Science. I want to share with you some of things I’m sharing in my talk about why this is a problem, and what you can do to help fix it.

Why we have a problem

The reasons behind why the percentage of women pursuing a CS undergrad degree has fallen to around 18 percent, half of what it was 30 years ago, are surely complex. Consider, though, the sexism that still exists in our society and that girls find themselves facing at a young age. Think about the toy aisle with its distinct pink and blue color coding. The message that the toy aisle often sends is that girls are meant to be homemakers, caretakers and nurturing while boys are supposed to go places, design things and build stuff. Target got rid of gendered toy aisles and people went nuts.

The idea that boys are better at some things or meant for certain kinds of jobs and girls others permeates the technology industry as well. In my research, I ran across an article just reporting the low percentage of women in the technology industry. The comments on the article fell into two categories: 1) women aren’t as good at technology as men; and 2) women just aren’t interested in technology. Sadly, I’ve seen these attitudes among some educators, and it’s simply not true. Keep in mind that these commenters are often sitting on search committees and are potential co-workers. Their bias might be keeping them from hiring perfectly qualified women. After all, they believe they’re inherently not as good as men at Computer Science and/or are not really interested in the field.

The all-boys’ club image of Computer Science isn’t helped by the media, either. One prime example is Silicon Valley, an Amazon Prime show about a start-up. Sadly, there are no women on the development team, and the guys sit around a house coding all day and sometimes all night. They’re stereotypically socially awkward, especially around women. The show probably doesn’t make being part of a start-up look appealing to girls. There is research that suggests that television shows and films give young people ideas about what kinds of careers are appropriate for men and women. When only 7 percent of the computer scientists in film and only 16 percent of the computer scientists on prime time television are women, they’re certainly not seeing CS as an appropriate career very often (“Gender Roles and Occupation“, 2013).

This cultural environment can make girls not only find CS unappealing, but it can make them feel like they don’t belong, which can lead to a crisis of confidence. Girls already have a tendency to feel like the dumbest kid in the room even when they’re getting the best grades. Boys, on the other hand, feel just the opposite. They might be making Cs, but still see themselves in the top of the class. Girls are less likely to take risks than boys, which is great when it comes to deciding whether or not to skateboard off the railing, but not so great when it comes to trying out a class they’re unsure about. A great book about how girls (and women) feel less confident in their own abilities is The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. There’s some fascinating research in there that helped me understand some of my students (and myself) better.

What you can do

Okay, so we have a problem. There are actually some fairly easy things to do. In general, I would say to you, think about the message you’re sending to your students in the way your classroom looks, what kind of assignments you create, how your students are asked to complete those assignments. Think about the toy aisle and whether you’re telling girls this work is not for them.

Look around your classroom. If you have control over how it looks, please tell me it doesn’t look like the set of Star Wars, Dr. Who, or a video arcade. Yes, we geeks like those things, but it can be off-putting for some and send the message that in order to be a part of the class, your students have to like those things, too. Keep your decor neutral. Or maybe add some posters of women in Computer Science to go alongside your Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates posters. Think Grace Hopper, Jean Bartik, Maria Klawe, Karli Kloss, or Marissa Mayer. Recent research shows that when the classroom is neutral, girls are three times more likely to show an interest in Computer Science than when the CS classroom is stereotypically geeky. It makes a difference.

Think about your assignments. Are they the same assignments you did in high school? Unless you were in high school a few years ago, it might be time to update them. Connect your assignments to the real world. Many girls particularly like to see practical applications of the work they’re doing in class. Girls, in particular, also like to know that the work they’re doing could potentially help someone or help solve a problem that plagues the world.

Also think about how you have your students work on assignments. Does everyone complete all the assignments individually? Consider using pair programming, peer instruction, and group work. All of these methods not only make the work potentially more appealing to girls, who appreciate the social aspects of work, but they also help all students retain Computer Science concepts. They’re very effective pedagogical strategies.

Finally, encourage your students, especially your female students, along the way. When they make a mistake in class, be supportive, help them learn from it. If a girl seems to like CS, whether or not she’s good at it, encourage her to take another course or enroll in a summer program, or pursue CS at the next level, whether that’s high school, college or graduate school. Recent research from Google shows that encouragement is a key factor in retaining women to continue their student of CS.

If you’re in need of more ideas, there are plenty out there. Here are just a few places to start:

The Lessons of HitchBot

This past week, a story circulated around social media about how HitchBot, a friendly hitchhiking robot met a grisly end here in Philadelphia. When the news hit, all my techie friends rallied and vowed, “We can rebuild him.” Computer Science professors and teachers and a local MakerSpace all agreed to pitch in. Then came news that the demise of HitchBot might not have been true, that the surveillance video was created by a prankster. So no one quite knew what to believe.

Unfortunately, while the video was a fake, the robot was indeed destroyed, and the Canadian researchers who created him ended his journey. The researchers had set out to see if humans would treat robots with kindness. I guess the answer, at least for humans in the US, is no. Research on human-robot interaction is widespread as many futurists and computer scientists believe we’ll be interacting more and more with robots who might be taking on some of our routine tasks. We already have the prospect of self-driving cars on the horizon, and in Japan, they’re researching caregiving robots. It makes sense to figure out how to create robots in ways that we will want to interact with them productively and not, as in HitchBot’s case, destroy them.

To me, there are two lessons to take from the HitchBot story. One is that humans might treat robots just like humans, which is to say, we aren’t always kind and can be downright violent. The second lesson is that it pays to do some research on news stories. It was honestly really hard to tell what the real story was for many days. First, everyone thought it was real, then everyone thought it was fake and that the robot never existed, and then a clearer picture emerged that was more complex than the original story indicated. Social media often amplifies untruths and correcting a story might take a long time, if it happens at all. So before you click through to the story, check your sources. If it seems crazy, it probably is. And if you see a robot hitchhiking along the side of the road or resting on a park bench, give her a ride. You’ll be improving human-robot relations.

Computer Science in Other Disciplines

Many people argue against the teaching of Computer Science by saying that we shouldn’t create a bunch of programmers/computer scientists. I find this argument frustrating because we still teach Math, English, and even Biology even though we know that not all students will pursue these fields. Why do we teach different disciplines? Sometimes, it’s to expose students to career possibilities and sometimes it’s to provide them with skills for any career. CS is about both. It’s important to expose students to the field of CS itself, and let them see the many different forms it can take, but perhaps more importantly, the skills that one learns in CS apply everywhere.

We argue that CS teaches problem solving, logic, and more, and it’s true, and those skills are useful in many contexts. There are always problems to solve, no matter what career you choose, and increasingly, there are programming or technical needs in any career you choose. But don’t take it from me. Take it from one of my former students, Rebecca, now studying Biomedical Engineering at Case Western Reserve:

Even though I am not planning on going in a strictly Computer Science direction (I am currently studying Biomedical Engineering with a Biomaterials concentration), my experience with programming has taught me how to approach problems, and has given me enough background experience to apply to Biomedical Imaging labs- where computers are taught to distinguish cancerous tissue from healthy tissue in MRI images by searching for specific attributes and patterns in the image. Even in the medical field in widespread projects like cancer research, people with programming backgrounds are needed. Some are needed to actually write code, but many more are needed to understand how the data is being created and used so that they know how to implement it in future experiments.

Most of my CS students are not going to be computer scientists, but most of them will pursue careers where their CS experience will help them.  We need to keep reminding people that CS is not just for computer scientists and programmers, but for everyone!

The Membership Committee

The Membership Committee of the CSTA is responsible for cultivating membership.  It seems like a straightforward enough job, but we set our goals pretty high.  The CSTA is valuable precisely because of its member base.  Being a member of the CSTA gives you access to thousands of members around the world with whom you can share ideas, learn, and grow as a Computer Science teacher.  We’re always trying to increase membership so that everyone has a great experience and lots of smart teachers to connect with.  In addition to individual members, we also have institutional members: schools, universities, and companies who support the mission of the CSTA.  These members provide additional resources for our members and often sponsor events and activities that are advertised to our membership.

How many members are there?  Altogether, we have almost 20,000 members, both individual and institutional.  These members represent all 50 states and over 140 countries.  That’s a powerful group of advocates!

Membership levels by country:


Membership levels by state:


Why join CSTA? I recently represented the CSTA at the Celebration of Teaching and Learning Conference and was asked that quite a bit.  Being a member of the CSTA means being a part of a larger community of Computer Science Teachers, Educators, and Advocates. You get access to curriculum resources, reports and information about Computer Science education.  Many CS teachers are the only ones at their school, so having a community to connect with makes you feel less alone, and being a member means you, too, can contribute to the direction of Computer Science Education.  There’s a lot of work to be done, and every voice needs to be heard, so add yours now! Find out more at the CSTA membership page.


Computing and The Super Bowl

Most people think of sports as the antithesis of computing.  Computing is all indoor activity, staring at a screen and sports is outdoors, running around on a field or track and usually involves the use of balls, nets, rackets and other equipment.  But modern sports involves a lot of computing power.  There’s a ton of CS in just a single game.

Let’s start with the football.  While there’s still some hand work involved in making a football, much of the process is done by machines that are calibrated and run by computers.  Most manufacturing of any kind today involves specialized robotics to put things together.  Designs for the templates and the machines themselves are often made using CAD software.  Check out this video and see if you can spot the computing.

Now let’s move on to the field.  Fields must be carefully groomed and accurately marked, which is often done by robots or other computerized methods, but what most of us watching at home see is that magic first down line.  Creating that line uses a variety of computing tools.  First, a 3D model of the field is created, because each field is slightly different.  Next, the color of the field is recorded as the shades of green also vary, and the first-down line relies on green-screen technology to work.  Camera computers send position information to another computer, where a person basically right-clicks in the correct location to generate the line.  Wikipedia has a decent explanation of the process:

Each set of camera encoders on a camera transmits position data to an aggregator box that translates the digital information into modulated audio where it is sent down to the corresponding camera computer in the truck. This data is synchronized with the video from that camera. At the camera computer the camera position data is demodulated back to digital data for use by the program that draws the “yellow line” over the video.


Separately, the chroma-keying computer is told what colors of the field are okay to draw over (basically grass) and that information is sent to the camera computers.


That’s a lot of computation for one line!

The broadcast itself also involves a ton of computing.  Nowadays, the SuperBowl is live streamed in addition to being broadcast on regular television.  And it’s being streamed for free, so the algorithm to handle that many simultaneous streams is going to be complex.  According to the senior VP of digital media for NBC, Rick Cordella, the live Super Bowl stream will be available at variable bit rates ranging between 500 kilobits per second up to 5 megabits per second, delivered as an HLS stream.

Fans in the stadium won’t be able to stream the game, but there is an app available for them, allowing them access to those famous commercials and to different camera angles (http://bit.ly/167zQCA)

For many footballs fans, besides watching the games on television, participating in fantasy football online is a huge part of their interaction with the game.  All of that involves some serious programming, using data collected from real games to create the outcomes for the fantasy ones.  The fact that there is data to be collected that’s available through an API is of course, another way the game uses computing power.  Many teams use that data to improve their performance and select players for the next season.

So while you’re watching the Super Bowl tonight, or watching any sports game, really, think about all the computing power that makes the game possible.

Winners of Faces of Computing Contest

The Faces of Computing Video Contest was a big success.  We had over 100 entries from 20 states and 6 countries.  The idea behind the Faces of Computing Contest, both the previous poster contest and the video contest, is to represent a greaer variety of people doing computing and to dispel myths about what computing is and who can do it.  Too often in industry and in people’s minds, the “faces of computing” are white and male. The posters and videos submitted by these students show that all kinds of people enjoy computing.

The videos showcase students not only with different ethnic backgrounds represented, but also students with a wide variety of other interests in addition to Computer Science, It’s clear that CS appeals to many kinds of kids.  In the videos, there are artists and athletes, writers and math geeks, and budding computer scientists.  The students show that Computer Science really is for everyone and can be useful in a variety of fields.

The winners were hard to choose, as there were so many great entries!  I loved getting to see what other schools do in Computer Science class and hearing students talk about their CS work and their other interests.  Below are the winners’ videos.  They are really great promotions for CS.  I highly recommend showing them to your classes, to your administrators, whomever you think needs a little nudge to see CS in a different light.

Winner, High School Division

Massachusetts Academy of Math & Science
Teacher: Angela Taricco
Students: Josephine Bowen, Sarah Duquette, Jackie Forson, Ana Khovanskaya, Eva Moynihan, Amol Punjabi, Sashrika Saini, Christopher Thorne, Ryan Vereque

Winner, Middle School Division

Teacher: Idrus Tamam
Students: Uluwiyah Jatim

Winner, Elementary School Division

Hale Kula Elementary School
Teacher: Megan Cummings
Students: Kaylee Smith, Markus Langhammer-Kenan, Kaleah Shabazz, Haylee Barlow, Natalie Chastain

Faces of Computing Contest Now Open

In the past few months, several of the big tech companies released their data on diversity at their companies.  The data revealed that many of them still skew white and male and that the more technical areas are even more white and male than the company as a whole, because departments like marketing and human resources have more women in them.  CSTA has been active in countering racial and gender disparity in Computer Science.  At the CSTA conference, there are regular sessions on attracting women to the field, on ways to structure assignments to be gender neutral and/or racially sensitive.  One of the key ways to encourage people from a wide variety of backgrounds to pursue Computer Science is to showcase people of different backgrounds doing Computer Science.  When students see that “kids like them” are studying Computer Science, they’re more likely to feel that the field is open to them.

Now you can be a part of showcasing students doing Computer Science through the Faces of Computing Video Contest, sponsored by CSTA.  Your students can create a video featuring the ways they participate in computing.  The format of the video can be anything: a commercial, a short film, a public service announcement.  Let your students be creative!  Like the poster contests from previous years, the videos will become part of the CSTA campaign to encourage young people to study Computer Science, no matter what their race, ethnicity, or gender.  And your students can win prizes.  We’ll be giving away robots, either Spheros, Hummingbirds, or Finches for each school level (Elementary, Middle, High School).*

So get to work! The deadline is November 20th, with winners announced during CS Ed Week. I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone comes up with.  There are so many different kinds of students out there doing so many different kinds of computing.  Seeing what’s possible in computing and all the different people participating is a great way to celebrate the power of computing to touch lives around the world.

*Package worth 500.

Laura Blankenship

9-12 Board Rep, Computer Science Teachers Association
Chair, Computer Science, The Baldwin School (http://www.baldwinschool.org)

Computer Science and “Makered”

Are you a Maker? Do you even know what that is? And how, exactly, is this related to Computer Science? The exact lineage of the Maker Movement is debatable. The idea of making things, hacking, repurposing, and doing things by hand is a long human tradition. It’s also a long tradition within Computer Science. Popular Mechanics and The Home Brew Computer Club come to mind as well known examples of the culture of making as it applies to technology and computing. But recently, Making, as embodied to some extent by MAKE magazine and their Maker Faires, has been making new inroads into our lives, and especially into education.

In education, making, makerspaces and fablabs have been primarily focused on STEM (or STEAM) disciplines, arguing that current educational practice has made these subjects too abstract and too much about rote memorization. To really learn these subjects, students must participate in active, hands-on learning, the argument goes. The idea of making in education has come to be called by many, makered. Educators will recognize in makered the tenets of a constructivist approach to teaching and learning and CS educators in particular might recognize the work of Seymour Papert lurking behind much of the discussion of bringing making into the classroom.

In some circles, makered has become synonomous with 3D printing, electronics, building robots, and working with Arduinos and Raspberry Pi’s. But many de-emphasize the technology involved in making and focus on the active nature of building something, whether with electronics or cardboard, especially in schools where expensive technology equipment is out of reach. The tension between physical products and digital ones or some combination of digital and physical makes makered an interesting topic to explore in CS Education.

In recent years, CS Education has begun to emphasize the big concepts of Computer Science rather than being solely focused on programming as the one way into CS concepts. Activities and assignments that are part of CS curriculum often leave out the computer altogether and teach such things as loops and sorting algorithms using objects, board games, and even people. Like maker educators, CS teachers see the value in creating and using physical objects and active techniques to teach concepts. Philosophically, these two groups of teachers, are not far apart at all.

Broadly speaking, many maker educators are also CS educators, especially in the early grades. Elementary and middle schools have added makerspaces and maker programs as a way to incorporate CS into their curriculum. But there are some maker educators who are librarians, English teachers, science teachers, history teachers, who have no CS background and sometimes face the prospect of now having to create a project that involves programming. They come to CS out of necessity. On the flip side, some CS educators are tied to programming and digital products as their sole purview and shun the idea of having to work with electronics and hardware, much less cardboard and glitter. Maker educators are always looking to learn from CS educators and I think CS educators can learn a lot from their maker counterparts.

Making, or if you prefer, physical computing, offers an engaging way to introduce or extend Computer Science. From using Hummingbird Robotics kits to make Artbotics projects to building sophistaced Arduino projects, there’s a wide range of skills that students can gain from combining physical objects with computation. Working with physical objects that people actually use is a both an engineering and a human-computer interface challenge. Printing a surround for an Arduino project involves thinking three-dimensionally and learning about scale in a way that’s not at all abstract. Even creating a Rube Goldberg machine, as my Physical Computing class did last year, involves the same kind of problem solving and logic that programming requires. Paper crafts and sewing are also popular kinds of projects that can be combined with computing, thanks to small and sewable computing products like the Lilypad and Gemma Arduino. And these kinds of projects, as Yasmin Mafai pointed out in her CSTA 2014 keynote, are appealing to girls, making them a great way to engage more young women in Computer Science.

It’s worth trying a maker project in your CS class, whether it’s something that combines the digital with the physical, like programming an Arduino to fill your dog’s food dish, or something completely physical like a Rube Goldberg machine. You’ll be surprised by how fun they are and by how much students learn from doing them. And if you’re interested in learning more about makered, join me on Tuesdays at 9 P.M. EST for my #makered Twitter chat.


  • Invent to Learn, by Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez
  • MAKE magazine
  • Instructables
  • Adafruit
  • Sparkfun
  • #makered Twitter chat

Laura Blankenship
9-12 Representative, CSTA Board of Directors