Join Upper School Computer Science Department Chair and Teacher Ash Hansberry, Middle School Computer Science Teacher Bobby Oommen and Lower School Computer Science and Technology Integration Specialist Fiona Deeney for a discussion about CS as a liberal art.
Ash Hansberry: I’m Ash Hansberry and I am an upper school computer science teacher. I am also the Department Chair for the Computer Science Department.
Bobby Oommen: I'm Bobby Oommen, middle school computer science teacher.
Fiona Deeney: I'm Fiona Deeney, the lower school computer science and technology integration specialist.
How do you teach computational thinking skills to lower school students?
Deeney: Well, I will start with my JK students when I talk about that. We do a unit at the beginning of the year when they start at Latin and it is completely unplugged. They're not using any technology when they do this unit. And we read a story called “Hello, Ruby.” And they're introduced to a character who goes through her day, solving different problems. She has a mystery to solve. And along the way, she's learning how to break down those problems again. She's doing decompositions, she's doing abstraction, she's noticing patterns. She's also thinking about sequencing in the story. Again, those words I try to use as I'm reading the story and then connecting those to an activity. We did one activity where the character needs a ladder and they need to build the ladder. Well, once they learned how to build one part of the ladder, then they could repeat that step over and over again. They didn't need to think about how to build it every time, the same as a computer–once it's programmed to do one, one type of task, it can do that task over and over again.
Another example is when the third graders do a project where they are thinking about how you build a three-dimensional shape. How would you describe to somebody what's the algorithm for making a three-dimensional shape? Again, not using any technology as they're doing that. Initially they have to think about the steps it takes to build, say a cube that you don't just say, it's a square that they stretch it out. You really have to think about how it's built. And they record themselves talking about how they put the shape together, using some different tools and they go back and they listen to their descriptions and how one person may make something differently than another. But that if you start to think about the amount of different ways that you can make a cube, there's probably one way, that's the most efficient way. So they take those ideas and then they break that down, the steps that they take to build that cube or that pyramid. And then they record those and also take pictures along the way of how they're building each step. So there, it's making them really be conscious about how you put something together. And that it's not just done all in one.
Oommen: So I don't know that the larger pieces differ from any of our divisions, but I would say that in the middle school, I have to think about this particular phase of their lives when they're really into themselves. And they're really discovering what they're into and what they're not into. And then formulating projects that allow them the maximum amount of self-direction. In six through eighth we're learning about web development. And so I have learned more as the final project being a design “your own webpage,” more about the “Gilmore Girls” and BTS and any sports team that I've ever known because they've got that agency. And so in the middle school, especially giving them more agency to do what they want to do. I would say that's one of the ways in particular in the middle school that the method may be a little bit different.
Hansberry: And I would say in the upper school, it's really just continuing with this pattern that Fiona and Bobby laid out. We're really just circling back to all of the same skills that we've been teaching them, and then maybe doing it a little bit more complex and in a little bit more depth and with a little bit more sort of personal autonomy there. So, you know, where a student might learn about an algorithm on paper, get to explore an algorithm like Google's quick draw in the lower school. In the middle school they might get to think about, okay, what are actually the steps there and what are the applications. They can revisit it and take it one step further. And then by the time they get to the upper school, well, maybe they have the skills then to modify that algorithm or to write some code to change how it works or to write some code that adds on to what's already there. So we're really just using all of the same skills and coming back to it to get into a little bit more depth and a little bit more complexity each time we see those topics.
Oommen: I know in the lower school, Fiona has different ways that she's teaching kids algorithms or even when they learn about the different steps and things. And then in the middle school, we talk about how would you sort something? And so the kids have to sort cards in order without being able to speak to one another. And then we talk about different sorting methods and how that might look, but then they're not at that point, they're not programming those in the upper school. They're actually writing the code to come up with a different sorting algorithm. And so seeing that trace out those teaching methods, again, just get deeper each time,
Deeney: Hearing both of you say that I really try each time I teach something, I say, this is what this may look like when you get to middle school, this is what this may look like when you get to high school college in your life, everyday life. So even though it might be that simple tool of building a ladder or that we think about systems for planting a garden, like what that can look like in terms of that computer science application as they get older.
Why is it important to incorporate computational thinking skills into a liberal arts curriculum?
Oommen: Okay, so this is my kind of waxing eloquently. If we define liberal arts as like studying the things that are most fundamental to the way that the world works. So you've got math and science and, you know, English, you got all these things that are, when you look around, they're the most fundamental to how this world around us is working. Then I would argue that studying technology and computer science is now fundamental to knowing how the world around you works. I mean, from the morning you wake up to when you go to bed, you are interacting with and using technology. And underneath that, computer science and computational thinking. It's essential to then understanding how the world around us works. There's a quote that's often used with policy and understanding. “Let's not produce just like consumers of technology, but let's produce creators of technology.” So moving from consuming to creating is essential. And so then should be incorporated in the liberal arts.
Hansberry: I'm so glad that Bobby mentioned that quote because that's exactly what I was thinking to this question. This idea that liberal arts is really about teaching people to understand the world and then to change the world for better. I feel like that's the aspirational goal of a liberal arts education is that you can look at the world, you can understand it, and then you can see how do I improve it? What's my piece and improving it? And if we want students to be able to understand and improve our modern world, I think what Bobby said is exactly right. We need to teach them how to create the tools, how to use the tools for their own benefit. Use the tools for good. I think it's increasingly the case that computer science is yet another one of those skills that people need to use the tools to shape the world for good.
Deeney: I'm thinking about some of the tools like the fun robots that we use in the lower school. There are different levels of the ways they can use the tool. It goes along with what you were just saying, Ash. They, of course, the first thing they want to do is to use the drive mode of all of these tools. Like where's the thing where I can just have it go. And I say, but there's, there's more to this tool. There's more to how this tool works like that when you push that forward button, that was programmed at one point to go forward. So let's look a little deeper and then we look at the block-based coding that can make that robot move forward a hundred centimeters and move backwards. So I think that sort of awareness when they're younger is that everything isn't just a drive mode, there's a creator behind it and that they can be those creators. So that it's not just the consumer of that toy or that robot, but they actually can have some control about how it works. And then hopefully that translates as they get older and be creators of different things.
How do you explain computer science at Latin to parents who did not have CS as part of their school's curriculum growing up?
Deeney: Well, that's a fun question because I love it when we have our tours come through our JK families interested in coming to Latin and they come through into the computer science classroom. And I would say, um, the way I explained it, is I let them see it in action. One way even our families at home can see as many explanations done by students using our Seesaw app, as they take a picture of something that they've done. And they can explain that. So their parents have that little window into their world of computer science. I think when I also have students do the explaining if if people are coming through and really have them think about why they are using that tool or why scratch works so well for making this project to have your characters move in a certain way and have the kids really think about the reason why we're using different tools in computer science. And really why for lower school students and I'm sure middle and upper school as well, why it's so fun to be a creator in something that I think as adults and probably many parents didn't feel that it may have been as fun if it was something that didn't feel comfortable when they were maybe learning about it in high school for the first time. So hopefully that sense of comfort and excitement when they are three and four and five, and going on up from there that, that continues as they move through school
Oommen: When we have those meetings in the middle school, I often say computer science is not just coding because parents will immediately associate CS and coding, which many of us, that was our first kind of experience into computer science is. Nowadays there's a lot of coding camps available. And so their kid goes into coding and one of the coding camps. And then they'll come and say, so-and-so knows a lot about CS. And that's when I get to again, just say like, well, it's not just about coding. It's about algorithms. It's about problem-solving. It's about networks. It's about so many things. I also like to tell them that it's collaborative. It's not just your child in a hoodie in their basement, drinking monster energy drinks on their own. Like this is a collaborative thing. It's meant to be that way. And, and then at the end of the day, it's like it allows you to be creative in so many different ways. And it's just another tool that we want to give to your child to have in their toolbox to express whatever gifts and talents they have.
Hansberry: I think what Fiona and Bobby were both saying ties into this idea that we're trying to reshape for parents and for students, what computer science is. Some parents based on the offerings they had at school, some colleagues even used to have this idea. You know, that computer science is very limited to just coding and just apps. And I think what we have the power to do when we're teaching computer science to our youngest students, when we're sharing these interdisciplinary projects through all of our different subjects, I think we have the power to reshape what computer science is to make it this liberal arts, problem-solving, fun subject that we all know it to be. And I think when parents see it that way, they can see the power of it, that it is a fun subject, and it is helping my student to, you know, both solve problems in all of their classes now, but also solve problems when they go out into the world in the future.
Deeney: I was in a JK classroom today and their chicks are hatching. So they were very excited yesterday. I was in there and they were still in their egg form and they were very excited to show me and they said, maybe the next time we're in computer science, we can use scratch junior and we can show how the chick went from being inside the egg into being in the world. So they were just so excited about it. I was so excited to hear them make that connection between how they can show in a science experiment or they can tell a story using computer science.
Hansberry: I love to hear things like that. I had a student come and tell me that they had figured out how to not do their math homework. I was like, oh no, what have you done? And they said, well, actually I did my math homework. And then I realized that I could make a program to do my math homework. And it's like, it's so exciting. Not that we should encourage them not to do their homework, but it's so exciting to see things like this, where our students are making the connections on their own. We don't have to point it out to them once they get used to this way of thinking, they're able to make all these connections on their own, which is really exciting.
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