Computer Science Expands Its Reach

Enrollment in the Upper School computer science program has grown each of the last four years. Even so, not all Upper School students fully appreciate how computer science can help deepen interests they already have, strengthen skills they want to enhance and lead to some of the hottest career opportunities available in the U.S. and around the world. More attitudes are changing with recent cross-discipline collaborations involving computer science and arts/humanities, along with the increased attention given to computer science in the Middle School curriculum, which features two computer science instructors this year, Jamie Atkeson and Toni Dunlap.

"We are determined to increase access to what is still seen as a niche field," says Upper School computer science instructor Theo Brasoveanu. "We are also focused on encouraging more girls to participate, for example, and more students from diverse backgrounds."

Students may be surprised to learn that the prerequisites to taking computer science courses are not advanced math or science experience, but enthusiasm for solving problems creatively or the courage to explore something not yet mastered, combined with the willingness to add computer science to a student's schedule of classes.

Hour of Code

"The whole idea behind Hour of Code has been to spark interest among students who aren't naturally interested in computer science," assert Theo Brasoveanu and Jeff Beck, Upper School Computer Science teachers, who co-hosted this week's well-attended one-hour coding 'open house' for Upper and Middle School students They were joined by fellow STEAM faculty members James Atkeson, Toni Dunlap, Jessica Clingman, Brian Mayer, Leigh Myers and Matt Tramontana, who shared student projects from Computer Science, Robotics, Engineering, Science and Math courses from both divisions.

"All too often, students associate computer science with the idea that not everybody can succeed at it," Brasoveanu continues. A large majority of students who have taken computer science in the past at PDS have parents in the field or have a high degree of mathematical interest to start with, but students with more diverse interests are increasingly trying out the new classes and experience creative breakthroughs. For this year's Hour of Code, the computer science faculty worked with the Upper School Deans to host a coding advisory.

"For the first time, 400 Upper School students were able to try coding through their advisory groups," Beck explains. The teachers put together a selection of activities highlighting different aspects of computing, including more artistic options like creating music, digital drawing or creating games. Beck notes that "virtually every advisory group this year had at least one student who was taking a computer science course, and they acted as student leaders within the advisories."

"Our goal in the computer science curriculum is to help students develop problem solving skills through a wide range of creative projects and applications," Brasoveanu continues. For example, one project, created in Brian Mayer's robotics class, featured a human/robotic dance routine of the "Cha Cha Slide". Students used coding and robotics to develop something fun that related directly to a past-time they enjoy, in this case, music videos. In a similar fashion, the AP Computer Science Principles course and the Intro to Computer Science course used Python coding recently to create electronic music and hip hop tunes.

Interdisciplinary work from the Object-Oriented Programming class, one of two intermediate- level courses offered at PDS, was also showcased at Hour of Code. The students demonstrated wearable electronics they developed last year for a dance production. The LED lights are operated by micro controllers with motion sensors attached to them, which control how the lights respond to sound and motion. To read more about this project, which was featured in the annual PDS Dance Show, click here.

Students in the Intro to Computer Science course showcased their websites and web applications, developed using HTML and Javascript, during the Hour of Code.

"It's so important that the students understand the universality of these tools. You can do so much with it and it touches so many fields. That's part of what we try to get across in the classroom" says Beck.

PDS Computer Science Courses Offer Something for Everyone

"An important emphasis of our computer science curriculum is to foster innovative projects designed to impact society and culture," Beck explains. The projects are often student-led and are designed to connect the student to their work through meaningful goals. In the past four years, as enrollment in computer science at PDS has continually increased, a new level or course has been added each year.

"The computer lab facility has become a hub for the students since its completion three years ago," Brasoveanu notes. "We have 16 desktop computers, and students who have apple laptops can wirelessly broadcast to the smart board, allowing everyone to collaborate, troubleshoot and problem-solve. The proximity of the lab adjacent to the Wellemeyer STEAM Center allows us to easily use their equipment for fabrication and to collaborate across disciplines, like engineering, and across divisions, such as MS and US collaborations," he adds.

In Introduction to Computer Science, students have the opportunity to develop their own projects that focus on how coding can improve their lives. For example, this year some students developed a music composer system, while others focused on a park GPS navigator system that determined if the park is crowded, and where, so visitors could avoid those areas. Now that every 8th Grade student has classroom exposure to coding through the enhanced Middle School curriculum, the teachers have noted that interest in Intro to Computer Science is definitely growing.

AP Computer Science Principles was first offered two years ago. Intended in part as an introduction to computer science concepts ranging from the internet to data security, information processing and big data, it is not exclusively focused on programming. "A big focus is on the impact of computing and what you can do in the field," Brasoveanu explains, "but we also always emphasize creative coding in the course. The topics we cover motivate students to apply coding to prototype innovative product design projects that could have an impact on society and culture." Some of the projects students have been working on this fall range from sports training products, including fencing glasses and an automated hockey coaching system, to medical applications, including an early melanoma detection process and a brain disease detection approach that scans libraries of MRIs.

The next step in the computer science curriculum is AP Computer Science A. This course focuses on advanced programming in Java and uses logic, data structures and algorithms to create real-world computer science applications. For example, this semester students in the course worked on training a chat bot with a library of responses to a range of questions.

New this year, PDS also offers Advanced Computing: Coding for a Purpose, which is a highly project-based class that is available for a few of the School's most advanced students who have completed all other computer science offerings. "Advanced computing is exciting because we work with different groups across campus on projects that have varied impact," says Brasoveanu.

The class focuses on cyber security, data structures, AI and machine learning, and physical computing. Students use Arduino and Raspberry Pi microprocessors to write code that interacts with various types of motors and actuators to sense things in the outside world and take action. Some students in the class are currently working on using python and text analysis to design an automated system to reorganize the student tour guide system for the Admission Office. With the help of these young coders, the task of manually scheduling about 100 student volunteers to sync up with tours that cover different periods and days of the week will become much more efficient.

The class also plans to work with Facilities and Building & Grounds to access data from building sensors and make recommendations about sustainable use of lights, air conditioning and heating. And they will partner with Harvard's Opportunity Insights group and US History teacher Chris Rhodes' US Government class to work on a data-driven project about social mobility in urban communities.

For some recently published information on the state of the computer science industry and its impact on career choices, see this LinkedIn article.

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