Never too late to innovate

Last summer, after nearly 19 years as a CS teacher, I started thinking how my class has evolved exponentially over the years and how this school year I wanted more of those deeply gratifying “Aha” moments from my students. So, I started researching ways in which my Computer Science class should evolve beyond updating the content to align the new standards. I realized I was giving myself a big task, considering that I was still mapping my curriculum to the new CSTA standards which it is a lot of work by itself. My goal, my hope is that my experience is useful to other CS teachers out there looking to make some reinvigorating and refreshing changes.

So here is my journey to start the new school year. Part of my research included finding out how important Computer Science skills are in the work force. What would my kids really need once they leave our school and be prepared for both college and “real world”? There is so much information out there that is easy to become overwhelmed so I had to narrow it down to focus on my goal. What would bring those “Aha” moments to balance the covering of my content and preparing my students for when they leave High School? I remembered that when I was in High School, I was required to take a home economics and woodwork shop class. I remembered the best part about these classes was the satisfaction when I finished a project and could take it home to show off. The closest to that emotion I have seen in my students is when a program finally works and they get the result they want, or when a robot finally performs as expected due to its programming. So, I thought why not combine the CS skills and content with that satisfaction of creating something tactile that can be used in real life besides software. Basically, bring CS alive through STEM and real-world applications. I was able to pull this off with 3 simple steps that did not break my school’s budget:

Step # 1: I redesigned my computer lab. I didn’t want to be a makerspace; after all this is a Computer Science class not an engineering course but I needed some elements of the engineering process. This didn’t require a large budget so it is always good to start to look at what you have and how to use it, what your school has and how to recycle any pieces of furniture you can find. I’ve never had a class with more than 24 students as that is my school’s policy but my lab had 30 student PC computers. I took 6 student PCs out and kept 24 which left me with 3 long tables. I used two of those to create a working area, where students could 3D print and assemble robots & collaborate on other innovations. Now I had 3 main, clearly identified areas in my lab: The Research & Innovation Area, which is where the PCS are located, students can research and investigate prototypes, program and research. The Engineering Area, which is where students get their hands “dirty” building their prototypes and The Robotics Area where I have my robotics table to assemble and test robots.

Step # 2: I requested the school purchase materials that I needed that were not your typical Computer Lab things like included drills, screw drivers, sand paper, tweezers, wrenches, solders, cable strippers, etc. I also got lucky when my school got two 3D printers donated so now, I had 3 at my lab. These are part of the Engineering Area.

Step # 3: I had to “spice up” my projects for the semester so they were fun, engaging and aligned with the content I needed to cover. I took some time to research many innovative projects and found some that were just right. My students are now creating digital pets with Microbits, which are cheap and simple yet very adaptable electric boards, they are making collaborative projects like designing a drone 3D model that can be printed and programmed using two Microbits, building hats that sing and even video games played with controllers that they designed. Other simple yet valuable projects include measuring the humidity in soil.  

This past December I finished the first semester and I can say that these changes have been successful. It is possible to integrate Computer Science into STEM without losing the essence of what Computer Science is. The students were very engaged, they treaded unfamiliar territory with power tools and allowed their minds to be challenged while having fun. Yes, at times the classroom was a little bit of an organized chaos, but this is exactly how learning should be; challenging and fun.

Michelle Lagos

Michelle Lagos
Representative at Large