Computational Thinking — What does it mean to you?

How do you integrate computational thinking (CT) concepts and strategies into your teaching? Have you heard your colleagues talk about it and wondered if they have accurate and useful understandings of how CT can be used across the curriculum? Are you curious about how other schools, or even other countries, are implementing CT strategies? Wondering where you can get more information?
Well, consider the March issue of the CSTA Voice as your CT 101 Primer! Take a look and then let us know what you’re thinking about the topic.

  • Take a step back to the conceptual foundations of CT with a review of the “roots of CT” with Irene Lee, Co-chair of the CSTA CT Task Force.
  • Discover how England is embedding CT into the national computing curriculum with John Woollard, leading member of Computing At School (CAS).
  • Compare the problem-framing strategies that help students connect math to everyday problems with MEAs (Model-Eliciting Activity) to CT strategies with Fred G. Martin, Co-chair of the CSTA CT Task Force.
  • Explore the list of CT resources gathered by Joe Kmoch, CS consultant and retired educator.


  • VOTE! Read the statements from the 10 candidates running for the 5 open seats on the CSTA Board of Directors in the March Voice. The affairs and property of the Organization are managed, controlled, and directed by a Board of Directors elected by you. A huge amount of work through committees and task forces is also completed by these Board members.
  • REGISTER for the 2016 CSTA Conference. Read more about the plans for “Making Waves in San Diego” in the March Voice.

Pat Phillips, Editor
CSTA Voice

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 Read more stories with ideas for increasing diversity in CS education in the CSTA Voice

The Big, Big Computer Science Gender Gap

Check out the recording from Edsurge on Air, “How the Other Half Learns to Code”

Hear interviews with students, teachers, and professionals on the state of, and strategies for impacting, CS gender balance. The revelations from the 6th graders are most interesting!

CSEdWeek: Ideas to Fit Your Schedule

The November Voice is full of great advocacy ideas. Be sure to check it out! (

CSEdWeek is quickly approaching and it’s likely that you already have some great projects planned for the week of December 7–13. But if not, here are a few ideas, small to large, to fit the time you have.

You will find many more ideas and resources at,, and Great projects can be used any time of the year so don’t limit your computer science (CS) education advocacy ideas to just one week in December.

Pledge your support for CSEdWeek and start planning how you will fuel the future with CS education at

15 Minutes:

30 Minutes: 

  • Assign students to ask their families to spend an entire day without using any computing technology (including no car, microwave, or digital television) and record their experiences. Discuss their findings in class the next day and relate to CS careers.
  • Prepare a showcase of student computing projects.
  • Offer a lunch break “CS Escape” once a week or once a month to invite non-CS students to “play” with CS concepts and tools such as CSUnplugged, Scratch, AppInventor, or Kodu.
  • Schedule your students to take turns in the cafeteria or student commons to demonstrate cool CS projects from your class.
  • Learn a few “magic tricks” to spark up your introduction to CS concepts.
  • Redecorate your classroom with new posters among the many available from CSTA or

1 Hour: 

  • Participate in Hour of Code.
  • Invite former students who are college CS majors to visit your classroom to tell about the exciting things they are learning. 
  • Assign cross-curricular projects. Ask other teachers to allow your student to “show off” their computing version of the assignment.
  • Submit proposals to share your innovative CS teaching strategies at conferences.
  • Encourage your CS students to host an open house for other students.
  • Contact your local government representative to ask for support in having December 8–14 proclaimed CSEdWeek.
  • Engage students in playing a matching game of inspiring CS quotes to famous people. Expand into an assignment on CS careers.
  • Explore the resources from the Computer Science Collaboration Project to find Exemplary Practices for Engaging Hispanic/Latino(a) Youth in CS ideas.

3+ Hours: 

  • Arrange a field trip to a local high-tech company or corporate IT department; invite parents also.
  • Plan CS projects that involve “social causes.” Recruit community members to serve as “clients” for your students.
  • Host a parents’ night that showcases the fun, exciting, and meaningful career opportunities in computing and debunks the myths about the dwindled IT job market.
  • Plan a CS exploration day for potential students and parents. Gather ideas from programs such as Computer Mania.
  • Look for technology contests to showcase your students’ ideas such as the ACSL, Google Code-in, Aspirations in Computing, Imagine Cup and others.,,,
  • Investigate ways to engage underrepresented students in computing.
  • Form an advisory team of students, parents, other teachers and administrators, business leaders, and others to plan CS promotion projects in your community year round.




CS Principles and Creativity

Students will likely need exposure to, and practice with the CS Principles big Idea “Creativity” many, many times before a “creative – innovative – mindset” is comfortable and natural. You may have to undo years of “non-creativity conditioning.”

It is not enough to tell students that creativity is important; you must show students that you value creativity by actively engaging in it yourself. I don’t have to tell you that a unit exclusively “on creativity” is bound to fall flat!

So how can we build creativity and innovation into the very core of CS Principles? A few suggestions from a variety of experts:

  1. Let students know that there are usually multiple paths that lead to understanding.
  2. Arrange student collaborations that provide meaningful (to them) real-world, problem-solving opportunities.
  3. Provide lots of project and performance choices that employ a variety of “intelligences” whenever feasible.
  4. Encourage them to look for and experiment with new things and ideas.
  5. Encourage questioning.
  6. Be sure your grading does not penalize “less than successful” creativity. Students will not feel free to experiment if their grade hinges on some abstract measure of success. The true reward for being creative is purely intrinsic.
  7. Encourage them to mistakes as opportunities for learning rather than failures.
  8. Enable students to exchange, value, and build upon the ideas of others. Share interesting examples of technological creativity that you run across in the media.
  9. Make time for informal interactions between students.
  10. Offer a safe environment that encourages risk-taking. Avoid a competitive and extrinsically rewarding classroom, by providing a friendly, secure, and comfortable environment.

What do you do in your classroom to build the creative capacity of your students? Share with us!



Extending a conference invitation to your administrator

By: Pat Phillips

As you are well aware, the Annual CSTA Conference is only a couple months away. Registration and housing are open, the agenda nearly set, and anticipation is soaring for another extraordinary program of workshops, sessions, and events. This is a wonderful event for CS and IT educators to learn about new tools, teaching resources, pedagogy, and all things CS education professional development.

But what about your administrators? Is your district rich in CS education or just at the beginning stages of building a strong program? Are there administrators, principals, curriculum directors, or IT professionals that you just wish could know what you’ve learned about why CS education is vital to a 21st Century K—12 program and a vibrant community? Why not invite them??

There are dozens of reasons for them to attend! You know how contagious the excitement about CS gets at the conference…what better way than to share that excitement with the people who can make a difference in your program.

Go ahead. Send this link to all of your administrators with a note about how excited you are about attending, why it’s the best CS education conference, and why you hope they might come along.

Teaching Writing is just like Teaching Computer Science

We all know that writing is an important skill to develop in every classroom—including the computer science (CS) classroom. If our students can’t communicate their ideas, they don’t have a chance succeeding in or out of our classrooms.

And while as CS teachers we know the importance of teaching writing, we sometimes freeze with that deer-in-the-headlights look when thinking about actually TEACHING communication skills. Well, I’m here to tell you that you’re a natural! If you can teach computer programming, you can kids to write.

Thank you, Terry Freedman, for the elaboration of these ideas in the Tech & Learning article “How learning to code might improve writing skills” (

Compare the strategies you use to teach CS to those required in writing.

  1. Making a plan for writing is similar to creating a flow chart or storyboard.
  2. Writing a clear precise sentence is like an explicit computer instruction.
  3. Good grammar is just syntax in another language.
  4. Well-ordered text is not much different than code that follows the algorithm.
  5. Too many words can confuse the reader just like too many statements create spaghetti code.
  6. Creative writing and programs require a mastery of vocabulary and commands.

See? I told you that you were a natural. Teach writing the way you teach programming and you’ll be fine.

L’Oréal For Women in Science Program

I don’t hear often enough about the accomplishments of young women in professional or near-professional accomplishments in CS, so I was excited to learn about the annual L’Oréal For Women in Science program that recognizes and rewards the contributions women make in STEM fields and identifies exceptional women researchers committed to serving as role models for younger generations.  More than 2,000 women scientists in over 100 countries have been recognized since the program began in 1998.

The L’Oréal USA For Women In Science fellowship program will award five postdoctoral women scientists in the United States this year with grants of up to $60,000 each. Applicants are welcome from a variety of fields, including the life and physical/material sciences, technology (including computer science), engineering, and mathematics.

Do you know someone who qualifies? Do you have acquaintances in universities who might know candidates? Please send them the information.

Applications opened on February 2, 2015 and are due on March 20, 2015.

The application and more information on the L’Oréal USA For Women in Science program can be found at

Should you have any questions or require additional information, please e‐mail

A Resource for your Careers Unit

Probably at some time during the next semester, you will guide your students through a unit on “career explorations.” Certainly, there are lots of resources out there to learn about CS careers, job prospects, pay, and education. The challenge comes in putting together a cohesive…not to mention up-to-date… series of lessons.

While cleaning off my work desk (an annual end-of-the-year event in my life), I found a suggestion on a scrap of paper I had torn from Tech & Learning several month ago that might just fit the bill.

The site reference is econedlink ( from the Council for Economic Education. The specific lesson plan is “The 411 on College Education” (

The lesson includes objectives such as:

  • The relationship between level of education and the average unemployment rate
  • Level of education and median weekly income
  • Choosing and financing college
  • College as an investment in human capital

The online lesson is designed to be used by students and includes activities, assessments, and an extension activity—all with links to reliable sources of information. Take a look…it might be a resource to complement career exploration in your classroom.

Inspired Students

Don’t you just love it when passionate people find a project and just make it happen? Isn’t it even better when the people are students passionate about CS?

I recently learned about a CS competition being organized by a group of students from around the U.S. and spearheaded by Arun Dunna, a HS junior from Atlanta, Georgia. The competition, sCTF, will be an online, week-long “capture the flag competition” for middle and high school students. The project is inspired by competitions such as PicoCTF, HSCTF, and EasyCTF.

Problems will involve a variety of programming skills and concepts including cryptography, reverse engineering, and general algorithmic problems. The team competition will take place quarterly beginning March 1, 2015.

There isn’t a lot on the website just yet, but more is promised—including prizes for the winners.

I wish them the best of luck in their venture…perhaps some of your students will participate and report back about the experience. Or better yet, maybe some of your students will see this as an inspiration to follow their passions.