Using Genius Time/Passion Projects to Encourage Exploration of Computer Science

Genius Hour is a movement that allows students to explore their own passions and encourages creativity in the classroom. It provides students a choice in what they learn during a set period of time during school. The Genius Hour movement has been around for years and has been used by some of the world’s leading innovative companies. One of those companies, Google, allowed their engineers to spend 20% of their time to work on any project that they’re passionate about. The philosophy behind this movement is that when people are given the opportunity to work on something of personal interest, productivity goes up. Well, they were right. Since Google’s implementation of Genius Hour, fifty percent of their projects, including Gmail and Google News, have been created during this exploration time. Who would have thought that allowing employees the freedom to explore their own interests during work time would contribute to the company’s success?

Since its inception, Genius Hour has made its way into the world of education and is transforming the way students learn and take ownership of their learning. There have been many educators leading the way with Genius Hour in their classrooms and most of their inspiration has come from Angela Maiers and Amy Sandoval’s book The Passion-Driven Classroom: A Framework for Teaching & Learning. Recently, I have become inspired by this Genius Hour movement as well, and I have started to explore how I could apply it in my own classroom. More specifically, I have thought about how could I use Genius Hour to encourage my students to further explore the field of Computer Science. There are so many areas of study in Computer Science and I often find myself just providing a brief summary for my students to spark their interest. But what if I could ignite that spark, and then provide an opportunity for my students to keep the flame going?

Recently, my school district made a commitment to personalized learning for all students and invested in personalized learning coaches that will help with implementation in the classroom. When it comes to personalized learning in the classroom, no single thing is more powerful than Genius Hour. One of the coaches loaned me Andi McNair’s book Genius Hour: Passion Projects that Ignite Innovation and Student Inquiry. After reading this book, I definitely feel prepared to ignite that spark and implement a Computer Science Genius Hour in my classroom. McNair say, “Genius Hour provides students with opportunities to discover what it means to think for themselves, to really pursue something that is meaningful to them.” She also goes on to say that, “It’s time to realize that in our classrooms sit the world changers, inventors, and innovators of tomorrow. Our students are the future.”

This school year, I have decided to embark on a Computer Science Genius Hour Journey with my students. I am so excited to give my students the opportunity to further research Computer Science as a field, explore related topics, and potentially collaborate with outside experts in the field. Ultimately, I want to encourage my students to make a personal connection with Computer Science. Through those personal connections, my hope is that they discover their own passion in computer science and find ways to impact their world through their discoveries.

If you’ve implemented Genius Hour in your Computer Science classroom, I would like to hear from you. If you’re interested in taking this journey, below are some additional resources that I have found to be helpful:

  • AJ Juliani’s “The Research Behind Genius Hour” provided insight on connecting standards to inquiry-based learning. http://ajjuliani.com/research/
  • Chris Kesler’s Science Blog provides “10 Reasons to do Genius Hour with your Students” – https://www.keslerscience.com/what-is-genius-hour/
  • Chris Kesler and AJ Juliani’s website (http://geniushour.com), provides a free webinar called “Getting Started With Genius Hour: The Step-by-Step Guide to Structuring Genius Hour.” They also offer a Genius Hour Master Course, which is a comprehensive course that walks you step-by-step through Genius Hour and how to implement it in the classroom.
  • Westside Community Schools Personalized Learning website (http://westsidepersonalized.com) provides a wealth of resources, as well as podcasts that highlight how teachers in my school district are implementing personalized learning.
  • Westside Community Schools EY (Gifted) Website (http://ey.westside66.org). Follow the “Enrichment” tab to “Passion Projects” to find templates and suggestions for Passion Projects

Kristeen Shabram
K-8 representative

Increasing equity and inclusion in computer science education

Last month I attended my first CSTA conference. I LOVED the positive energy. From the keynote speakers to the exhibition space to the breakout sessions, everyone at CSTA2018 seemed genuinely happy to be together and they were clearly excited to share, learn, and ultimately do more for students.

My favorite part of CSTA2018 was the session with Andy (Andrea) Gonzales. In short, while in high school, she and a friend created a viral video game, won a Webby Award, wrote a book, were covered by multiple media outlets and now she is on a full ride scholarship to both UNC Chapel Hill and Duke. Impressively, she’s determined to leverage her space in the spotlight to do more for other young women like herself.

Andy talked about the exclusion she felt as a young woman learning computer science. She shared that the early support of an adult (her male summer camp counselor) was key to her success today. She described the misconceptions she had about computer science and the stereotypes that so many other young women and women of color struggle with. She emerged from her experiences more empowered and now wants to empower others.

Andy and her story are impressive. And yet, the thing that struck me the most about Andy was the response she garnered from the adults in the room.

Nearly all the questions Andy fielded from the audience of 700+ computer science education teachers and advocates were about they could do more to support girls and students of color in their computer science classes. How can I get more girls to join? What do you think I can do differently? Of the few girls I have in my computer science classes, how can I get them to engage more? How do I best support my students of color?

These questions clearly articulated the teachers’ desire to do more to help ALL their current or potential CS students succeed. They also illustrated the gaps that exist for teachers to find – and then implement – the resources that would help them reach this goal.

To be clear, I am not an expert on this topic. And in full transparency, I work for a tech company that is actively working on how it makes progress on diversity, equity and inclusion internally and how it can play a role in increasing equitable access to computer science education around the world.

I do know that there is a lot of good and important work that has been done on equity and inclusion in education broadly, and specifically in math and science. And while we are making progress, and there is a lot of great research on what the issues and challenges are in diversity, equity and inclusion in computer science, what I hear from teachers and others in CS education is that we still have work to do to make practical solutions easy for teachers to bring to life, specifically for computer science.

I know that by sharing a short list of resources, I am bound to leave things out. But with the goal to start somewhere, as I’ve been on my learning journey, others have told me that the following resources and information have been helpful in their work to support success for all students in their computer science classes and programs.

I’m sure you have some you want to share – please do! Post them on Twitter, tagging @csteachersorg with the hashtag #CSforAll so others can see them too. You can view all posts that use these two tags here.

Defining the issues:

Practical tools and resources for teachers and schools:

Recent blog posts by fellow CSTA board members:

Yvonne Thomas
Partner Representative CSTA Board

Tips for CS PD Facilitators

As we gear up for the new school year, many of us are entering into professional development (PD) soon. I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to plan and facilitate PD for teachers in San Francisco, and based on this experience, I’d like to offer some tips that I believe contribute to successful learning experiences for teachers.

Model best practices

  • Facilitate learning. Teachers should experience sessions in a format similar to their students. Be the guide on side, not sage on the stage. And, please, please, please don’t lecture about active engagement.
  • Be explicit about strategies used. Then, allow teachers to reflect on whether and when the same strategies could be useful in their own classrooms.
  • Set explicit learning goals and measure progress towards those goals. If you want to develop a strong community of practice, state this explicitly as a goal, actively work towards this goal through collaboration and team building, and measure progress through surveys and observations. Do the same with content and pedagogy-oriented goals.
  • Differentiate. Groupings or breakouts based on grade level, content area, or other contextual factors can be useful, but this in itself is not differentiation. Consider multiple means of representation, action/expression, and engagement. Set consistent baseline objectives for everyone, and create different levels of scaffolding and extensions to challenge teachers at the appropriate level.
  • Allow choice. Let teachers decide what is important and relevant to them. They cannot choose everything, but make sure have some agency.

Record, reflect, assess

  • Compile all resources and make it easy to access them. Consider a simple website or hyper doc (e.g, SFUSD’s PLC site).
  • Create shared notes documents so everyone can benefit. This allows a good record for teachers to remind themselves during the school year and allows those who missed out to reap some of the benefits. Ask for volunteers to contribute to the notes documents at different times.
  • Prioritize time for reflection. It’s important for teachers to process their learning and consider how they will apply new ideas and strategies. Thoughtful reflection improves transfer to classrooms.
  • Ask for feedback. This can help you evaluate, plan for future sessions, and improve facilitation. Don’t wait until the end to ask for feedback. Create formative measures.
  • More importantly, use the feedback to change plans and improve. And, show a summary of participant feedback each day, and explicitly note the things you’re changing to respond to feedback.
  • Assess learning. Don’t rely solely on feedback. Use similar assessment measures to those used in the classroom. Collect teachers’ projects to examine more closely.

Attend to the environment

  • Create a welcoming and inclusive space. Try to choose a room that is colorful and filled with natural light. Take down any Star Trek posters and replace with something that appeals to everyone. Create table groupings to make it easier to collaborate.
  • Set and reinforce norms. As teachers come from different communities and cultures, it can be helpful to adopt a set of common norms. Reinforcement can come through reflection, a norms tracker, and celebration of colleagues.
  • Make it fun! Throw in some corny jokes and spontaneous dance parties. Play music during breaks. Put candy and LEGOs on the tables.
  • Include breaks. Breaks allow teachers to take care of personal needs, engage in informal collaboration, and maintain better focus during sessions.
  • Get teachers up and moving. No one likes sitting all day. Movement is especially important after lunch because this is when most people’s attention starts to fade (the “trough”).
  • Mix up groupings. Many teachers default to choosing teammates whom they already know, but they also prefer to get to know new people. Facilitate this by thoughtfully designating grouping strategies and consider when teachers should collaborate with teachers from different and similar contexts.
  • Switch up the facilitation. Just like students get tired of hearing the same teacher all day, teachers feel the same way. Work to mix up both the facilitator and methods of facilitation as much as possible.
  • Empower teachers to lead and share their best practices. One way to do this is an unconference in which teachers select and run sessions based on their interests.

Show teachers you value them

  • Pay teachers. Teachers already work hard enough. If the PD doesn’t happen during the contract time, it’s important to compensate teachers for their commitment.
  • Provide good food. It doesn’t have to cost a lot to be thoughtful. Make sure to include some healthy options and attend to dietary restrictions. Unlimited snacks go a long way.
  • Provide the materials needed to implement lessons/curriculum. It is a huge lift off of teachers to give them ready-to-go materials. They’ll be very appreciative of the time (and money) you saved them.
  • Celebrate success. A fun and easy way to close the week is for teachers to create their own superlative awards to celebrate something they are proud of and share with the community (e.g., best debugger, craziest sock wearer, biggest risk taker).
  • Don’t treat adults like they’re children. Let teachers decide what’s best for them. Structure can enable productivity, but too much structure or accountability can foster resentment.

Other pro tips

  • Sprinkle in tips and tricks, and allow teachers to share these. Examples are new tech tools (e.g., yellkey.com), brain breaks (e.g., GoNoodle.com), team builders (e.g., Zip Zap Zop!), and showcasing strategies (e.g., Michelle Lee’s tips for amplify student voice).
  • Go beyond the (one) curriculum.Teachers new(er) to CS need to develop a decontextualized knowledge of CS and be empowered to determine the best ways to teach concepts to their students. Try to not just use one lesson or curriculum but offer several options on a related topic and ask teachers to contribute others and reflect on the usefulness in their own contexts.
  • Don’t try to do too much. You cannot do everything in one hour, one day, or one week. Decide what’s most important based on the teachers who will be attending and set measurable and achievable learning outcomes for the time you have. Expect things to take ~50% longer than you think they will.
  • Don’t let it be a one and done. Ensure there are follow-up mechanisms throughout the year. An effective way to do this is to create a community of practice, with both an online presence and regular, in-person convening.

What tips did I miss? Tweet @btwarek and @csteachersorg.

Bryan Twarek School District Representative

A Call to Celebrate Diversity in Computer Science

A primary goal for our #CSforAll initiative should be to develop positive computational identities among all students. This requires that students not only build strong foundational knowledge and skills; they must also understand how CS connects to their interests and, perhaps most importantly, believe that they can succeed in CS.

This is challenging because a small subset of the population has dominated the field of computer science, and our society has crafted a pervasive and narrow stereotype for who has access to and can achieve in CS. Even though the field is actually more diverse, these stereotypes are not surprising given the mostly homogenous population of the tech industry (see the Kapor Center’s Leaky Tech Pipeline report, 2018).

It is critical that we disrupt this narrative. We must highlight how people of all backgrounds have positively contributed to computing in diverse ways.

Describing the problem

Students as young as elementary school begin to adopt stereotypical beliefs in STEM. Research has shown the negative impact on students traditionally underrepresented in CS, namely women and people of color (e.g., Cheryan, Master, & Meltzoff, 2015). Professor Sapna Cheryan notes:

“People use these images to decide where they fit, where they’re going to be successful and what’s appropriate for them to pursue.”

Stereotypes negatively affect students’ interest, self-efficacy, career aspirations in STEM (e.g., Shapiro & Williams, 2011). If students do not fit those stereotypes and they don’t have role models that suggest otherwise, they are less likely to pursue CS.

What can we do about this?

Such a wicked problem cannot be fixed quickly, but we can make substantive impacts in our local schools. One strategy is to connect students to role models and mentors with whom they can identify, to provide inspiration and guidance. Exposure to role models of similar race and gender backgrounds leads to increased identification, self-efficacy and aspirations in STEM fields (Stout et al., 2011; Scott et al., 2018).

How to celebrate diversity in CS

Teachers can provide exposure to diverse role models through books, videos, and magazines and also through direct interactions including classroom visits, field trips, career fairs, and mentorship programs. These efforts should happen throughout the year. In addition, during cultural awareness months, we can use the opportunity to highlight people of specific backgrounds. March is Women’s History Month. This presents a great opportunity to connect students to female role models and showcase the incredible contributions of women in CS. Below are some suggestions from the #CSinSF team:

  1. Invite guest speakers to your class. If you don’t have connections through friends and family, try finding a local volunteer or a Skype connection. Here are some tips for classroom volunteers and a list of suggested questions to ask about their careers.
  2. Explore careers. Great videos featuring diverse professionals are available from Made w/ Code, Technolochicas, and Code.org. You can also have students read articles from the Careers with Code magazine, designed for teens to understand how computer science can help them create a dream career in any field, including health, sports, business, fashion, and virtual reality. The site features both profiles and videos of diverse people in diverse industries.
  3. Showcase influential figures in CS. Read books, watch videos, and lead activities that showcase influential figures in computing. For example, during Women’s History Month, hang these posters of seven incredible women in CS and lead related activities (e.g., matching activity, Bee-Bot challenges, Kahoot). Elementary teachers could read story books like Ada Lovelace: Poet of Science and Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code and show videos like Happy Birthday, Ada. Additionally, teachers of all levels can use Hidden Figures (original text, young readers’ edition, story book, or the film adaptation) and challenge students to retell stories of these incredible women (e.g., through Scratch animations).

Bryan Twarek, School District Representative

Reading Stories in Computer Science Class

Stories are an entertaining way to introduce or reinforce computer science concepts and help students to understand abstract concepts in a more concrete way. Do you read picture books, chapter books, or short stories to your students in computer science classes? I do. The easiest way to get started is with books that are specifically written to teach CS concepts.
For 5-8-year-olds, Hello Ruby: Adventures in Coding by Linda Liukas is a wonderful place to start. Written to introduce young children to computing, it is a picture book about a “small girl with a huge imagination.” As Ruby goes on adventures, students learn about planning, sequences, algorithms, collaboration, conditionals, loops, and more. The book includes activities that go along with the story, and the official website has resources for educators. Linda Liukas has also written a second book, Hello Ruby: Journey Inside the Computer, which includes activities about the internal parts of a computer.
A graphic novel for 8-12-year-olds that covers multiple CS concepts is Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes. It is the first in a series of books that combine logic puzzles and coding (in Logo) wrapped up in a mystery storyline. The official website has downloadable activities and Logo instruction videos so your students can code along with the characters if desired. Check out the excerpt on the website for a fun introduction to binary. The concepts in the book can easily be applied to any programming language you are using with your students.

The comic book, The Cynja, by Chase Cunningham,‎ Heather C. Dahl, and Shirow Di Rosso was written for younger children, but I like it for introducing Networks and Cybersecurity for Middle School students. The Cynja is a story of a battle between the evil forces of cyberspace and the Cynsei and his apprentice, the Cynja. Code of the Cynja, the second comic in the series, has a female lead character. These are difficult to get in print, but digital versions are available on Amazon and in the Google Play Store.

Don’t limit yourself just to books written about computer science concepts. Working on decomposition skills? Read a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. Then work with students to decompose it and build a decision tree. Talk about how conditionals allow it to work and have students create their own “Choose Your Own Adventure” program. The Fly on the Ceiling by Julie Glass is a fun book to introduce the coordinate plane. After reading it, students could create a Scratch project to draw their initials using glide commands with x and y coordinates. Read The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and have students retell the story with Bee-Bot or write a ScratchJr project about the life cycle of the butterfly. Look around and see what books are available at your school and find ways to use them in your computer science classes.

Are you reading stories to students in your computer science classroom? We would love to hear about it!

Vicky Sedgwick K-8 Teacher Representative

Learning computing with metaphors

Don’t think of an elephant!

Now what are you thinking about? Of course, it’s an elephant.

This sentence is the title of a book by George Lakoff, a contemporary linguist who makes that case that we frame our thinking with the words and metaphors we use. By consciously recognizing this, we can understand our own thinking better and become more persuasive.

Inspired by Lakoff’s work, Alvaro Videla published an essay Metaphors We Compute By in the October 2017 Communications of the ACM. As a computer scientist and software engineer, Videla recognized the extent to which we make sense of concepts in computing via metaphors. He gives this example:

Say you could program a computer to command other computers to perform tasks, respecting their arrival order. This description is already difficult to understand. On the other hand, you could describe the solution by describing a queue server that assigns jobs to workers based on a first-come, first-served queue discipline.

Consider all the examples from daily life in the description of the solution: A “queue” is something with which all of us are familiar—that’s a “line” for those of us speaking American English! “First-come, first-served” is how most everyday lines operate, “workers” and “jobs” are people and roles from our daily lives.

With this metaphor, it makes sense. The everyday concepts translate into computational artifacts. A worker becomes an operating-systems process. A job becomes an algorithm carried out by that process on some particular data. The line becomes a FIFO queue.

This idea of using metaphors goes back far in our field. Some of the early CS education research focused on how the names of words chosen to be language commands helped (or hindered) students’ understanding. For example, in the 1987 article The Buggy Path to Development of Programming Expertise, Pea, Soloway and Spohrer reported on how students expected parallelism in BASIC code with “IF… THEN” statements. They thought the computer could evaluate any statement as needed, firing when a condition became true—as it might be in daily life.

I’ve used metaphors to explain function application—a concept in functional programming. It’s similar to how parameters or arguments are supplied to C or Java functions. I brought a rubber mallet to class, and described function application as the mallet “pounding the parameters on the head.” So if you have a function increment, which adds one to its parameter, then increment sees a 3, pounds it, and produces a 4. Then “functional mapping” is walking down a list, pounding each parameter in turn. In Scheme: (map increment (list 1 2 3 4)) produces the list (2 3 4 5).

Later during the semester, I could just pretend I was holding the mallet to bring back the idea of function application.

What metaphors have you introduced to your students to help them understand computing concepts? Did they work? Have you changed them over time? Please share with your colleagues!

head shot of Fred Martin, chair of board of directors

Fred Martin, chair of board of directors

Introducing CSPdWeek

We shine a spotlight on CS education for students each December during CSEdWeek. Why not do the same with a perennial offering for CS professional development for teachers?

After all, professional development has long been recognized as one of the key ingredients in CS education. Bringing even one PD provider to train a handful of teachers and counselors in a small district is prohibitively expensive, and even the smallest school district will need multiple solutions to implement the dream of CS4All. One way to solve this problem is with grants and sponsorships, subsidizing local workshops for a handful of teachers at a time. However, this only solves part of the issue–even with limitless dollars, scheduling constraints make it extremely difficult to bring multiple providers in at the same time. This makes it nearly impossible for most districts to adopt the broad mix of offerings that are necessary to increase diverse participation in computing. In other words, coordination can be just as large a bottleneck as funding.

CSEdWeek is a model for coordinated advocacy. Schools in a district, in a state, and across the country effectively leverage funding and volunteer efforts at the same time every year. It’s time to do the same for professional development, and this is the impetus and foundation for CSPdWeek.

The first annual CSPdWeek is this July 18th-22nd, 2016 – find out more at www.CSPdWeek.org!

CSPdWeek Events

An inaugural event, offering PD from Bootstrap, NCWIT Counselors for Computing, AP CS Principles, and Exploring Computing Science will be held during the week of July 18-22nd at Colorado School of the Mines. The event is sponsored by the Infosys Foundation USA, with additional support from the National Science Foundation, The National Center for Women & Information Technology, and the Computer Science Teachers Association. We invite teachers and counselors from across the US to apply for full funding (covering travel, food, lodging and PD), with an emphasis on those working in high-needs schools. Join nearly 300 educators from across the country, and spend the first CSPdWeek with us in Golden, Colorado!

Can’t make it to Golden? That’s okay! CSPdWeek is for everyone, and we encourage other PD providers to offer their own professional development events during the week. Professional development matters, and will be a crucial component of CS4All. By staking out one week during the summer, and coordinating our efforts, we can amplify the impact of everyone in our community.

It’s going to be an incredible summer, and we hope you’ll join us in celebrating CSPdWeek 16!
Owen Astrachan (CS Principles)
Gail Chapman (Exploring Computer Science)
Joanna Goode (Exploring Computer Science)
Jane Krauss (NCWIT Counselors for Computing)
Emmanuel Schanzer (Bootstrap)

Graphic Novel Introduces Coding to Middle Schoolers

By Paul F. Lai, PhD Candidate, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education

By In her fifth year teaching computing, Melissa Dohm found an engaging and effective new way to introduce the core concept of binary to her diverse middle school students at Ochoa Middle School in Hayward, California. She discovered Secret Coders, a graphic novel created to teach coding to adolescents.

Secret Coders, written by Gene Luen Yang (himself a longtime Bay Area CS teacher) and illustrated by Mike Holmes, premiered its first volume in October 2015. The graphic novel unfolds the story of Hopper and Eni, two intrepid pupils in a Hogwarts-like private school, where instead of mysteries coded in magic spells, the secrets are revealed through fundamental coding concepts.

I spoke with Melissa, also a technology teacher leader and English teacher, about using Secret Coders to teach binary.

Lai: You had an inventive way to teach binary in the past, is that correct?

Melissa: Since my first year, I taught a binary using a “magic trick” in which students learned to guess a number between 1 and 15 by asking a series of questions. Students made an Excel project with conditional statement functions to get the right number. They loved it and would show all their friends. But getting them to “understand” binary was challenging and would take a full week of struggling with the concept.

Lai: How did Secret Coders help you teach binary?

Melissa: The comic was a quick and interesting. When Eni starts to describe binary to Hopper, rather than using strictly mathematical language, he makes it into a game with pennies and boxes drawn with sidewalk chalk. I borrowed that game for our class’s “kickoff,” copying Eni’s methods and replicated those steps from the comic on my board, with magnets and boxes. Kids were really excited by the puzzle, and seemed to easily grasp the concept.

Lai: So the graphic novel provided a visual and game-based way of letting students play with how a series of “yes” or “no” configurations.

Melissa: And they really grasped it. When I announced, “We’re going to read a comic book today!” the students were thrilled. I gave a synopsis of the main characters and setting as we walked through the beginning pages.

Lai: You’re an English teacher as well, and familiar with how comics work. How did the visual narrative of a graphic novel help with conceptual learning?

Melissa: The book was a phenomenal addition to the binary lesson; they couldn’t put it down. They responded to binary as part of the mystery of this haunted school. When I asked them whether Hopper had gotten it right the first time, they all knew where she’d gone wrong. What normally took a week for me to teach, most of the students understood within a day.

I usually typically use a presentation to explain the history of binary, the base 2 system, etc. But this time, they received that information much differently after the graphic novel lesson. And they did really well with the activities involving the magnets and boxes on the board. By the time we took the quiz at the end of the week, a much higher proportion of the students— nearly all of them— showed that they understood binary. They even excitedly taught it to another teacher!

Lai: Describe your classes.

Melissa: Our school is very diverse, so I have students from many ethnic groups, a growing number of girls, kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and students with different abilities. One of my female students struggles with basic math concepts, but the magnets, columns of boxes, and visuals from the lesson gave me a way to support her problem-solving when she was otherwise stuck. She couldn’t do the basic math, but Eni’s lessons and the columns helped her figure it out.

Lai: How do you plan to build upon this experience?

Melissa: The kids are really curious what happens next in Secret Coders. They wanted to know how they could get the book so maybe they will read ahead and spoil it. We will try out the next parts of Secret Coders, where Hopper and Eni start learning to code with a robot turtle and I plan to use future installments of the graphic novel. Giving students the story and characters to care about, along with the smart visual lessons you can present in something like a comic book, really fits the way I try to teach computers in interesting and hands-on ways.

More information about Secret Coders, as well as instructional resources, can be found at www.secret-coders.com. Read more stories with ideas for increasing diversity in CS education in the CSTA Voice

A review of Google’s Exploring Computational Thinking resources

By Joe Kmoch

In Spring 2015, Google began work on revamping their CT website. Their materials are available at a website called Exploring Computational Thinking:

https://www.google.com/edu/resources/programs/exploring-computational-thinking/

A team at Google developed a template for lessons which would be made available on their site. They took the large number of lessons that were already on their site and rewrote them into this new lesson plan format. They hired a group of educators to review all of those lessons and now have about 130 lessons and other materials available.

These lessons have specific plans, are interactive and inquiry-based, and include additional resources. There are lessons in 17 subject areas mostly in math and the sciences. These lessons are also cross-referenced to various sets of international standards (Common Core, NGSS, CSTA K-12, and standards from UK, Australia, New Zealand and Israel).

At about the same time, another Google team developed a group of six videos called CT@Google which focus on the Seven Big Ideas from the CS Principles course, and how Google uses them in their work.

Finally, Google developed an interactive, online course, CT for Educators, where teachers learn what CT is and how it can be integrated into a variety of subject areas. It is quite good and can help a teacher work CT concepts into their regular lessons:

All of these are quality resources.

 

Disclosure: the author was compensated by Google for assistance in editing the collection of lesson plans mentioned in this article.

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: