A coeducational day school serving students JK-12

 

TRANSCRIPT

William Horberg ’76 is the executive producer of “The Queen’s Gambit,” a television limited series on Netflix. He has an extensive resume as a producer for several exceptional films, including “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Cold Mountain” and “The Kite Runner.” 

William Horberg '76 with actress Anya Taylor-Joy on the set of "The Queen’s Gambit" in Berlin.

William Horberg '76 with actress Anya Taylor-Joy on the set of "The Queen’s Gambit" in Berlin. (Photo credit: Phil Bray)

 

What is your favorite memory at Latin?

I have many favorite memories of Latin, but I guess the one that really stands out was this amazing trip we took on our spring break one year to the Appalachian part of the country to go to see bluegrass music. Dennis Sullivan, who was our anthropology teacher by day, but an amazing mandolin player in a bluegrass band at night, organized this expedition for us. And we spent a week or 10 days in Kentucky, in Tennessee and meeting all these amazing musicians and going to hear a fantastic kind of indigenous American music. 

Tell us about your latest projects.

My latest projects are “The Queen's Gambit,” which I hope everybody has seen on Netflix. It's a limited series. I also have finished a movie called “Flag Day” that is directed by and starring Sean Penn and his daughter Dylan Penn that will come out in 2021, assuming that the world is still here and that movie theaters reopen. 

How did you get involved in the film industry?

I literally printed up business cards that said I was a producer when I hadn’t done anything and hard to believe, but it actually worked.
William Horberg '76
Very circuitously. I dropped out of music school in Boston and I returned to Chicago to open the Sandburg Theatre with my Latin school, classmate Albert Berger. We showed classic and foreign films. So I started out in the exhibition side of the business. When the theatre closed, I decided to try to make movies like the ones that I loved and was screening. And I literally printed up business cards that said I was a producer when I hadn’t done anything and hard to believe, but it actually worked. The first thing I made was a series on Chicago blues music that we taped live at Chicago Fest on Navy Pier. I tried to write a few screenplays with a buddy of mine from Second City, and I got the rights to three novels that I loved. Two of which improbably eventually got made, “A Rage in Harlem” for Miramax and “Miami Blues” for Orion Pictures. In the meantime, I finally realized I couldn't reinvent the film business in Chicago, and if I was going to seriously have a go at it, I had to follow my friend Albert and move out to LA. I landed a job at Paramount Pictures, which really was my undergrad and grad school in the film business. 

What are the responsibilities of an executive producer and how is it different from the role of a producer?

Well, historically there are a lot of different people who do very different things from finding the material to raising the money, to going to high school or being just friends with the movie star that have all gotten some form of producing credit on films. I was the chairman of the Producers Guild in New York for a number of years. And the Guild has worked really hard to define the role of a producer and to limit the people who get the credit to those who actually do the work, which is to have the primary creative and financial authority and oversight over the film. In movies, the produced by credit designates, that primary role in television. It is the executive producer credit. 

What criteria do you use to choose your projects?

I have to fall in love, but I have a hard heart. So I don't fall in love too easily. I have found You better start from a place of passionate obsession, or you will never be able to sustain the effort it takes to will your project into existence.
William Horberg '76
that it can take years or even decades to get something made. So you better start from a place of passionate obsession, or you will never be able to sustain the effort it takes to will your project into existence. I also think of a Venn diagram. One circle represents the content that is getting made. Another circle represents the project I want to make. Where do they overlap and how big or small is that intersection. 

What is your favorite project that you've worked on?

In some ways that is like asking who is your favorite among your children. You have put so much of yourself into each of them. As a studio executive, I felt really fortunate to work with masters like the Zucker brothers on the “Naked Gun” movies, Mike Nichols, on “Regarding Henry,” Francis Ford Coppola on “The Godfather Part Three.” And as a producer, my collaboration and partnership with Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella on “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Cold Mountain” and other films was a huge part of my life. And amazingly or amusingly or both, given that I don't really play chess, my first film is a producer, “Searching for Bobby Fischer” and my most recent production, “The Queen's Gambit,” were two of my favorite experiences. 

How do you handle negative feedback or criticism on projects?

I am from Chicago. I pay people to intimidate or to silence my critics. No seriously, when I'm developing or making a movie, I welcome any smart person's candid critique, as long as it is constructive and respectful. But, once the project is complete and it's out in the world, I move on. There isn't anything I can do about it at that point. And there are always going to be those who get it and dig it. And those who don't for whatever reason.

The film industry has evolved over the years. Where do you see the future of film?

Paradoxically, change is actually the one constant in my business. The biggest change, as in every business, came with the advent of digital technology and the internet. Globalization, the hyper abundance of content, the migration from the prom primacy of the theatrical exhibition to the primacy of streaming content at home... Now, the pandemic has turbocharged the changes that were already underway. No one knows if movie theaters can even survive in this environment. So I try to focus on the things that are more eternal: the craft of good storytelling, creativity and problem solving, identifying and nurturing talent, and fresh voices. 

What skills have you learned at Latin that you use in your career today?

The love of reading and the analysis of great literature and films has served me well. More than half of my films have been movies that were adapted from books. I was blessed with great teachers that Latin, like Greg Baker and Mitch Siskin and Steve Schwartz, that really pushed us to think outside the box. Greg even used to run 16-millimeter prints of classic films at his house on the weekends. It was a truly exciting environment for learning. 

What advice would you give your high school self?

Try to maintain the attitude of a beginner that's enthusiastic... curious... eager to learn... questioning the certainties around you... willing to try... be unafraid of making mistakes...
William Horberg '76

This was one that I had to really ponder. In fact, it was fun because I reached out to other people to ask that same question too. Here's where I landed. I would say, don't look for advice from your future self. They have already made all the mistakes that you need to make for yourself. You already know everything that you need to know. You just don't know it. The journey is the destination, in my estimation. 

What have you learned professionally that is the universal truth to being successful in any field?


For me, I would say, try to maintain the attitude of a beginner that's enthusiastic... curious... eager to learn... questioning the certainties around you... willing to try... be unafraid of making mistakes... for sure, to work hard and to persevere, but don't take it all or yourself too seriously. 

 

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"The Queen's Gambit" Executive Producer on Life After Latin

 

TRANSCRIPT

William Horberg ’76 is the executive producer of “The Queen’s Gambit,” a television limited series on Netflix. He has an extensive resume as a producer for several exceptional films, including “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Cold Mountain” and “The Kite Runner.” 

William Horberg '76 with actress Anya Taylor-Joy on the set of "The Queen’s Gambit" in Berlin.

William Horberg '76 with actress Anya Taylor-Joy on the set of "The Queen’s Gambit" in Berlin. (Photo credit: Phil Bray)

 

What is your favorite memory at Latin?

I have many favorite memories of Latin, but I guess the one that really stands out was this amazing trip we took on our spring break one year to the Appalachian part of the country to go to see bluegrass music. Dennis Sullivan, who was our anthropology teacher by day, but an amazing mandolin player in a bluegrass band at night, organized this expedition for us. And we spent a week or 10 days in Kentucky, in Tennessee and meeting all these amazing musicians and going to hear a fantastic kind of indigenous American music. 

Tell us about your latest projects.

My latest projects are “The Queen's Gambit,” which I hope everybody has seen on Netflix. It's a limited series. I also have finished a movie called “Flag Day” that is directed by and starring Sean Penn and his daughter Dylan Penn that will come out in 2021, assuming that the world is still here and that movie theaters reopen. 

How did you get involved in the film industry?

I literally printed up business cards that said I was a producer when I hadn’t done anything and hard to believe, but it actually worked.
William Horberg '76
Very circuitously. I dropped out of music school in Boston and I returned to Chicago to open the Sandburg Theatre with my Latin school, classmate Albert Berger. We showed classic and foreign films. So I started out in the exhibition side of the business. When the theatre closed, I decided to try to make movies like the ones that I loved and was screening. And I literally printed up business cards that said I was a producer when I hadn’t done anything and hard to believe, but it actually worked. The first thing I made was a series on Chicago blues music that we taped live at Chicago Fest on Navy Pier. I tried to write a few screenplays with a buddy of mine from Second City, and I got the rights to three novels that I loved. Two of which improbably eventually got made, “A Rage in Harlem” for Miramax and “Miami Blues” for Orion Pictures. In the meantime, I finally realized I couldn't reinvent the film business in Chicago, and if I was going to seriously have a go at it, I had to follow my friend Albert and move out to LA. I landed a job at Paramount Pictures, which really was my undergrad and grad school in the film business. 

What are the responsibilities of an executive producer and how is it different from the role of a producer?

Well, historically there are a lot of different people who do very different things from finding the material to raising the money, to going to high school or being just friends with the movie star that have all gotten some form of producing credit on films. I was the chairman of the Producers Guild in New York for a number of years. And the Guild has worked really hard to define the role of a producer and to limit the people who get the credit to those who actually do the work, which is to have the primary creative and financial authority and oversight over the film. In movies, the produced by credit designates, that primary role in television. It is the executive producer credit. 

What criteria do you use to choose your projects?

I have to fall in love, but I have a hard heart. So I don't fall in love too easily. I have found You better start from a place of passionate obsession, or you will never be able to sustain the effort it takes to will your project into existence.
William Horberg '76
that it can take years or even decades to get something made. So you better start from a place of passionate obsession, or you will never be able to sustain the effort it takes to will your project into existence. I also think of a Venn diagram. One circle represents the content that is getting made. Another circle represents the project I want to make. Where do they overlap and how big or small is that intersection. 

What is your favorite project that you've worked on?

In some ways that is like asking who is your favorite among your children. You have put so much of yourself into each of them. As a studio executive, I felt really fortunate to work with masters like the Zucker brothers on the “Naked Gun” movies, Mike Nichols, on “Regarding Henry,” Francis Ford Coppola on “The Godfather Part Three.” And as a producer, my collaboration and partnership with Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella on “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Cold Mountain” and other films was a huge part of my life. And amazingly or amusingly or both, given that I don't really play chess, my first film is a producer, “Searching for Bobby Fischer” and my most recent production, “The Queen's Gambit,” were two of my favorite experiences. 

How do you handle negative feedback or criticism on projects?

I am from Chicago. I pay people to intimidate or to silence my critics. No seriously, when I'm developing or making a movie, I welcome any smart person's candid critique, as long as it is constructive and respectful. But, once the project is complete and it's out in the world, I move on. There isn't anything I can do about it at that point. And there are always going to be those who get it and dig it. And those who don't for whatever reason.

The film industry has evolved over the years. Where do you see the future of film?

Paradoxically, change is actually the one constant in my business. The biggest change, as in every business, came with the advent of digital technology and the internet. Globalization, the hyper abundance of content, the migration from the prom primacy of the theatrical exhibition to the primacy of streaming content at home... Now, the pandemic has turbocharged the changes that were already underway. No one knows if movie theaters can even survive in this environment. So I try to focus on the things that are more eternal: the craft of good storytelling, creativity and problem solving, identifying and nurturing talent, and fresh voices. 

What skills have you learned at Latin that you use in your career today?

The love of reading and the analysis of great literature and films has served me well. More than half of my films have been movies that were adapted from books. I was blessed with great teachers that Latin, like Greg Baker and Mitch Siskin and Steve Schwartz, that really pushed us to think outside the box. Greg even used to run 16-millimeter prints of classic films at his house on the weekends. It was a truly exciting environment for learning. 

What advice would you give your high school self?

Try to maintain the attitude of a beginner that's enthusiastic... curious... eager to learn... questioning the certainties around you... willing to try... be unafraid of making mistakes...
William Horberg '76

This was one that I had to really ponder. In fact, it was fun because I reached out to other people to ask that same question too. Here's where I landed. I would say, don't look for advice from your future self. They have already made all the mistakes that you need to make for yourself. You already know everything that you need to know. You just don't know it. The journey is the destination, in my estimation. 

What have you learned professionally that is the universal truth to being successful in any field?


For me, I would say, try to maintain the attitude of a beginner that's enthusiastic... curious... eager to learn... questioning the certainties around you... willing to try... be unafraid of making mistakes... for sure, to work hard and to persevere, but don't take it all or yourself too seriously. 

 

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TRANSCRIPT
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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TRANSCRIPT
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 how computer science is integrated into classroom activities at Latin and why it's important to adapt to technological changes in today's the world.

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.

What is an example of a computer science exercise taking place in the classroom?

Deeney: One of the examples of the projects that we are doing with the second graders right now, they're in the middle of a social studies unit where they're learning about the states and it was trying to figure out a way to incorporate some of their activities that they're doing in art with learning organic lines. And then also with something that they could do with technology. They worked with a 3D printing program, and first of all, worked with shapes that they were using in math. They were using geometric shapes. One example I had them do was think about a two-dimensional shape, such as a triangle, and then using the 3D printing app to turn that into a three-dimensional shape. So they turned that triangle into a pyramid. They had to think about what that looks like as you change the shape. They're also thinking about how the program works, that it's not magic. It doesn't go from using this 3D printing app to just coming out of a machine that that's being sent to the machine. And this is how it builds the shape. So they worked with a geometric shape and then move that into a three-dimensional shape. The next step they did was learn about organic lines. They were learning about it in art, and then we were using the free design draw, the free drawing tool in the app to think about drawing different shapes of things that they might find in nature. And then the connection with the social studies unit then is that after they did those two projects, then they had to think about how they could draw the state that they were studying and then what they would add to it to make it have a three-dimensional design. So they drew the outline of their shape using the free drawing tool, unless they have a great state like Colorado and they lucked out. They were really happy when they found that out, but then they also added some different components, some natural parts of the land that maybe on there. The students that did Hawaii were able to add different layers into the design that they made. And then we've been 3D printing those for them to look at and sort of see the comparison of what those seats look like. 

Oommen: So briefly in the middle school, one of the ways that we integrate computer science and computational thinking into an art class is Mr. Harris talks to the seventh graders about color theory and, and how the color wheel is organized and how colors are coordinated together. So I come in and ask them, well, this is great. You've got color. How would a computer that operates on ones and zeros represent color? And so I give them a little magnifying glass and they look up on their their screens and they're able to see these red, green and blue lights that are actually put together. And they're like RGB red, green, blue. We've been talking about additive and subtractive colors and how those work together to make all these different colors that we're aware of. So then we talk about how computers are using that same idea now in turning a red light on, I can turn a red light on with a computer and I can turn it off. And so we combine those ideas into a larger project where they paint some of the colors and then they use a computer to recreate some of the shapes, print those shapes out, put them in addition to their painted colors. And now they've understood color theory from both from the computer's perspective, as well as just their art perspective.

I would say really quickly as well, in seventh grade social studies, we recently had a new unit on artificial intelligence. So one of their culminating projects was how can AI be used to help in the Syrian refugee and refugee crises in general. And so they talked about how AI incorporates things like representation and reasoning, human interaction vision. And so we talked about these different things. And so students came up with different possible ways that AI could help those crises. And so again, just helping them see how we can now incorporate some of these things into larger, you know, worldwide problems. 

Hansberry: The example that I had in mind for the upper school actually touches on that idea of big worldwide problems as well. By the time students are in the upper school, they've done a lot of connecting computer science to their science classes, to their math classes, to their art classes, even, which is so awesome. And so by the time they're in the upper school, we like to take it one step further and have the students both how they can use computational tools to study different subjects, but then how they can also make their own tools to study different subjects. So we have a unit in computer science principles where we use NetLogo. NetLogo is a program that students can use to make simulations and models. And so we start off in that unit and the students can look at models about all sorts of things, and we make a point to make sure that students look at models, not just about science or not just about math, but we look at models about historical population growth, or we look at a model about segregation and see how a community becomes segregated based on individual's preferences. And so we're able to talk about how does this computational model allow us to better understand our world? You know, they can make connections to the problems they're seeing in history or to things they've read in English class. And then for their final project, that unit, they make a model of their own. And I've seen students make models on everything from students looking at climate change to students trying to model traffic in the cafeteria here at Latin a to students trying to model Coronavirus and how it changed people's movement around the city. And so they're able to apply it to basically whatever subject they have interest in. 

Why is it important to adapt to technology changes in the world? 

Hansberry: I think this is a great question because technology clearly changes so quickly. I think we're all aware of new technology, whether it's phones, apps, websites, it's clearly a part of everyone's day to day life. And so it's increasingly true that in order to function in the world, you need to have some amount of technology knowledge. But what I think is even more important is to have the skills to keep up with that technology. And that's something that I think we do a good job of by teaching computational thinking skills. So not only do our students get to use all of these tools, they get exposure to lots of different apps to different programming languages, but we're really focused on teaching them the skills that will help them keep up with it in the future. So no matter what app we teach them or what programming language we teach them, there's going to be something new by the time they're out of our class. And there's definitely going to be something new by the time they're in college, or they're looking for a job someday, but what's not going to be new is those core computational thinking skills, they're going to continue to apply. No matter what technology there is, the kids are going to be able to use their skills and well, let's take that technology and break it down. What are the instructions that this technology is following? Where is it getting its data? You know, what are the inputs and outputs that are going to this technology? So the skills that we give them to take care of whatever technology we see today is going to benefit them with the technology of tomorrow as well. And it's going to make sure that they're set up for whatever changes keep coming their way. 

Oommen: So one of the reasons why I think it's also important to adapt to technology changes in the world is in the ways in which it affects us in the way that we live life in policy, in so many things. So going back to that AI unit, we talked about algorithmic bias and similar to what Ash referred to. So where is this data coming from for this AI? Why could AI recognize white faces and not recognize black faces? Why did this AI, when it was processing, whether a person blinked, could recognize white people blinking, but not Asian people? And so talking about how, you know, this can feed into different ways where it it's not just bias, but then all of a sudden it becomes discrimination. And so how can our students be aware of how the technology can be used and where they need to be thinking about this tool can benefit everyone and avoid the mistakes that you know different policies and things have made in the past. 

Deeney: Bobby, with the discussion you're talking about AI, we have just a lighter version of those discussions in the younger grades. Something that I've had to discuss with the third graders was that we were using Google quick draw, which uses machine learning as behind it. And they were amazed thatvit could solve what they were drawing so quickly, but they also very quickly went into a discussion about if you are tricking the system enough that like what is a negative outcome that potentially it could have for a tool like that. Then what that extends to in larger world issues that we have to be aware of where the data is coming from. And then also how we use the data to determine what tools are useful. And then also that that's where things can go in a direction that the tool was not necessarily made for. And that we have to be aware of that.

Podcast

  • Academics
  • lower school
  • middle school
  • Podcast
  • upper school
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TRANSCRIPT
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 computational thinking and how it's woven into the curriculum at Latin.

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.

What is computational thinking?

Computational thinking is a set of skills, a set of thought processes, around organizing problems in a strategic organized way. Hansberry: Computational thinking is really just a set of skills, a set of thought processes around organizing problems, in a strategic organized way. So when we're thinking about computational thinking, we're thinking, how do I take the problem and break it down in such a way that a computer could understand it? So that means something like breaking a problem that is big into a bunch of little pieces, developing algorithms or instructions for how you would solve that problem. And then things like finding potential bugs or errors or ways that your solution might go wrong so that you can refine your solution and make sure that it is bug free and clear enough that any computer could understand it. 

How do skills in computational thinking allow students to solve complex problems? 

Oommen: So, as Ash mentioned, there are several components of computational thinking. One is problem decomposition. And so that's really just taking a problem and breaking it down into its smaller parts. Secondly, pattern recognition. So identifying patterns and then being able to forecast or predict what would happen next. And then the third one is then developing an algorithm. So what is the step-by-step way to solve this problem? So I think that those three things alone are huge in helping students to solve problems because oftentimes a kid will look at a problem and just say like, I don't know, like what do I do next? And so helping a kid say, well, what are the different parts of this problem? What do you see as like the discrete parts of this problem? And then helping them talk through like, well, I first see that I'm going to have to have this… I first see these like different sections... So if they can even start to parse out the different things, then it's not like this overwhelming, like a large problem to solve, but now it's like smaller components. I think that's really huge. And then when the kids start to identify patterns, they're able to make predictions like I think this is going to happen next or, well, I see these patterns applying to this section of the problem and this section of the problem, but not this section of the problem. And so again, what I've seen at least in the middle school is students getting overwhelmed by the size of a problem and not knowing where to start and computational thinking helps them to see that there are manageable pieces to this problem that you can now, um, attack. 

Hansberry: I would say that I've seen the same thing in the upper school as well. That one of the biggest benefits is this ability to know how to tackle a problem. I've said this to students before, if you can solve a problem in a way that computers can understand, you can be really confident that you know how to start the problem. You know, the steps in the middle, you know how to finish the problem, like this level of detail that goes into thinking like a computer can help students to really be able to take something that might overwhelm them and make it manageable.

How does computational thinking fit into every subject of study?

Deeney: To build on what Ash and Bobby just said, I think about the idea for a lower schooler of writing a story. You think about the specific components. It may feel like a large problem at the time when you're sort of thinking about that initial idea, but you have a deliberate sequence of how you put your story together and you have a goal in mind, as you write. In the editing process, you take out the pieces that no longer make sense, and you refine the story to get to your final product. So you're taking that big problem and you're breaking it down into smaller steps, taking out pieces that you no longer need. And thinking about the sequence as you put it together. 

Oommen: I would also say that, in the middle school, we often talk as teachers that we're all just helping kids solve problems and our problems look different in different subjects. But, computational thinking goes across the board. And, and so we talk often as middle school teachers, as far as integrating computational thinking is, are things that we've done as teachers, our whole lives, now we're just giving common wording so that when they go into another class or another class or another class, they're like, oh, this is the problem decomposition part, oh, this is the, this is the abstraction part. So there's at least a common terminology. And so kids don't feel like I'm doing something totally new in math versus language arts versus et cetera. 

Deeney: And just to build on that, Bobby as well, using words like decomposition and abstraction with even my JK students. So when they’re doing something, they break it down in just smaller parts or they're taking pieces out that no longer make sense–whatever they're doing–just having that exposure to that language, even when they're four or five years old, they hear that common language all throughout.

Hansberry: And I would say that that common language that Fiona was mentioning is like one of the strengths of having computational thinking built into our whole program–JK to 12–that's something I think is really valuable about our department. We can introduce these concepts in computer science in junior kindergarten, but then they see them in English in lower school and they see them in science and they see them again in middle school and they can keep revisiting these same terms and these same ideas, build these computational thinking skills, these computer science skills, really over their whole career with us here at Latin.   

Oommen: I will speak from the I perspective. When I was in school, I just felt like everything was just disjointed knowledge. I walk into one class and I've got to learn their thing and then another class and it's their thing. And it just all felt disjointed. And so as we integrate computational thinking to Ash’s points and Fiona's point, at least kids are able to see like, oh, it's the same skills I'm applying them in different ways. 

How do you build interest in thinking skills and integrate them into the curriculum? 

Hansberry: So I think this question is really answered by the fact that we don't teach computer science in a vacuum. We're never teaching computer science and computational thinking skills in one day in one lesson. There's no lesson we can point to that says today is the computational thinking lesson. It's really just woven into our curriculum and woven into the way that students solve problems. So when we're talking about a specific skill in class, maybe we're talking about debugging. Finding the errors in a program, we're looking at a specific program that does something, right? So we can take, maybe this is a program that's trying to calculate a problem they saw in math class, right? And we can look for the bugs in that program that they saw in math class. So it's really woven into the program. Whatever a student might be interested in. Maybe they really like math class. Maybe they really like art class. We can use these venues of where students are interested, as the problems we approach in class. You know, that is why I think in the upper school, and I know we do it in the middle and lower as well, we like to show students example programs that come from all these different disciplines. If we're practicing debugging skills, maybe one day we're debugging that math program, but maybe another day, it's a program that draws a picture and they can apply those same skills for a new program. But this time it connects more to the kids with an art interest or maybe they can use that same program to study animals, you know, and the kids who liked biology have a connection. So because the skills are so transferable, we really get to hook all the kids. We get an interested kid, no matter where they're coming from, no matter where their interests started, they can find a hook into computer science through all of our different parts. 

Oommen: I'll add onto that as well. I think all of us think our kids are inherently problem solvers and they're looking for good problems to solve. And if you can give them a problem  that is engaging, like they're willing to jump in, then we can start to talk about like, well, how would we solve this with a computer? So for example, one of the problems we start with in the middle school is you've invited 20 friends to a party. Here's the three tables. You've got to have them sit at the tables, but wait, these friends are in conflict and these people are friends. So how would you organize your tables? And then they come up with an algorithm and they come up with a reason why they would see people the way that they would be seated. Um, and then we start to break that down even further. And so we can say like, you're, you're solving problems all the time. Then these are relevant problems. Now, how do we get a computer to– because teachers use websites like randomseatingchart.org, a computer has solved that and just taken what you've just thought about and made it into an actual program. 

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  • Academics
  • lower school
  • middle school
  • Podcast
  • upper school
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TRANSCRIPT

Nathan Goldberg '14 is a professional bird-watching tour guide for Red Hill Birding, a local bird-watching tour company based in Chicago. His "life list," which is the total number of birds seen in a lifetime, spans about 1,230 species. Listen to his adventures of traveling the country to spot some of the rarest species of birds. 

Nathan Goldberg '14

What is your favorite memory at Latin?

My favorite Latin memory was probably going to Iceland or south Florida for Project Weeks. And we went snorkeling and played with dolphins and it was an amazing experience. 

How did you get involved in birding?

When I was about 13 years old, I actually saw this bird called a wood duck at North Pond, which is right in Latin actually. And it blew my mind and I realized that there were way more birds than I had ever recognized and started sort of honing in on that and was really fascinated by that and decided to dive in by a field guide and explore the birding world.
Nathan Goldberg '14
I got involved in the birding world through a variety of different avenues. I began when I was really young having an interest in collections. So Pokemon, cards, coins, you know, mini vinyl art figures, and all of that sort of compartmentalized on one side and then a passion for the outdoors was on the other. But I never really had a bridge between the two that made sense to me. And when I was about 13 years old, I actually saw this bird called a wood duck at North Pond, which is right near Latin, actually. And it blew my mind and I realized that there were way more birds than I had ever recognized and started sort of honing in on that and was really fascinated by that and decided to dive in buy a field guide and explore the birding world.

What’s the farthest you’ve traveled to see a bird?

The farthest I've traveled to see a bird is a tough question because I've both driven sometimes over 10 hours, one-way to see a bird, but I actually flew down to Tucson to go see, including a quetzal and a rare bird called a crescent chested warbler, and was able to see both, which was amazing. 

What are some highlights from your career in birding?

Over the last 12 years, I've worked on a variety of different projects through the avenues of birding. One was in college. I ran down to New York City to see a rare bird in Central Park and it was there. I looked at it. It was great. Unfortunately, though, it's a very difficult species to identify and often requires genetic material. And though the bird was cooperating, there was no way that we would have actually been able to catch it, sequence its DNA, et cetera, but I opportunistically, I collected a sample from it. It deposited a fecal sample for us. For those that aren't aware of what fecal samples are, the bird pooped. And I collected the bird’s poop, put it in a bag, took it to a freezer. Long story short, ran the poop through a DNA sequencing project and actually was able to figure out what species it was and got published and helped contribute to the record of New York bird knowledge. It was the first record confirmed of what is known as a Pacific-slope flycatcher. And that was really cool. 

Additionally, outside of that sort of scientific project, I did do what's called a “big year.” I set out in 2020 to see the most species of birds possible in a given year in the state of Illinois, which required 52 weeks of focus and intense driving and stamina, et cetera. But I was fortunate enough to be able to break the record and set an all-time high record for the state. And that was really, really fun. 
 

What’s the craziest place you’ve gone to see a bird?

Craziest place I've gone to see a bird is a tough one. I've been to a lot. Uh, the classic birder answer here would probably be that we'd gone to sewage ponds, sewage lagoons and garbage dumps. Those smells attract birds and they push away humans. Birds are often there. So that's always fun. 

Ash-throated-Flycatcher by Nathan Goldberg '14

Ash-throated-Flycatcher. Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Tell us about your life list.

What a life list is, is the total species of birds that you have seen in your life over your entire lifespan. We do have life lists as birders for smaller regions and larger regions. So my life list would be the world. Then there's my United States list, my lower 48 list. I have an Illinois list. I have a Cook County list. Some people I know have a zip code list. My life list is 1,230 species total, which is only what I would argue a fraction of the world's birds. There are over 10,500 species, and that list is ever-growing. 

Tell us your best bird story.

I'd say my best bird story happened very recently in May. I was out birdwatching on the Northwest side of Chicago at what's called LaBagh Woods. It's a forest preserve in Cook County. And I was with a client looking and photographing various birds. And out of nowhere, spotted this hummingbird; and a hummingbird in May is expected. We have what's called the ruby-throated hummingbirds in Chicago, but the moment I got my binoculars on the bird, I immediately lost my mind... I could not control myself. I freaked out. The bird that I saw in my binoculars had a bright red bill, blue green body, and was like this deep sort of almost purple-y color, which none of these characteristics fit a ruby-throated hummingbird, but they do fit what's called a broad-billed hummingbird, a species found in Southeast Arizona into the mountains of Mexico, 1500 plus miles away from here. So very, very unexpected, off our radar. And what was even more fascinating was the bird wasn't coming to a hummingbird feeder. It wasn't coming to flowers. It was just flying around this forest preserve. And unfortunately, when I first saw it, I identified it and then I failed to get a photo and the bird flew away and, you know, talking about being prepared, I was not, and really started freaking out and I didn't know what to do. I I called some friends and said, “You're not going to believe what just happened, but I saw a broad-billed hummingbird and the answer almost always was, ‘What, what are you sure? Are you really sure that's what you saw?’ I was like, yes, but it's gone. I don't know what to do.”
Nathan Goldberg '14
called some friends and said, “You're not going to believe what just happened, but I saw a broad-billed hummingbird and the answer almost always was, ‘What, what are you sure? Are you really sure that's what you saw?’ I was like, yes, but it's gone. I don't know what to do.” Long story short, the bird ended up coming back, got some photos, got the word out. Everyone shows up. I left, but I heard that over 400 people showed up within three hours. By when I actually put the message out that we had, we found it and it turns out we found the flowers, the bird was feeding on and it stuck around for eight days. And I had friends that came up from St. Louis from Southern Illinois. People came in from all over the state to see this bird. And it's actually only the second time one's been available for us to look at in the state as birdwatchers, it's the third ever record. But the only one that anyone ever could go see was in 1996 in November. And mind you, I was born in May that year. So like, I don't think six months old Nathan was going to look at a broad-billed hummingbird. But aside from that, there was one that showed up at a feeder and a yard and the homeowner didn't let people go. And so this sort of reopened that opportunity, and it was amazing to share that sighting with so many people. And it was so cool. 

Broad-billed Hummingbird on branch. Photo by Nathan Goldberg '14

Broad-billed Hummingbird on branch. Photo by Nathan Goldberg '14

Can you share some tips for bird watching?

I would say to always be prepared for birding. And I guess what I mean by that is have your camera ready to go, charged batteries ready. Camera cards, in case you take too many photos, have your binoculars ready, your telescope ready. Your car should have gas in it. I always have hiking boots in my trunk. I have rain boots in my trunk. I have a shovel, I've got jumper cables. You know, anything that you could imagine you may need. I've legitimately gotten news about a bird while I've been asleep in bed and out the door in 10 minutes. 

What is a skill that you’ve learned at Latin that you use today?

One skill that I really learned through my time at Latin was the skill of communication and perceptively understanding that other people may be coming at something from a different angle.
Nathan Goldberg '14
One skill that I really learned through my time at Latin was the skill of communication and perceptively understanding that other people may be coming at something from a different angle. Everyone has their own approaches to how they do things, but if we're all in the field together, or let's say I'm guiding a tour and people are feeling some type of way about something that we're doing, making sure that they feel comfortable communicating that to me and ensuring that they feel like they're being listened to and that I'm responding appropriately to them. Well-mannered but also with direction, if you will, is something that I've definitely found really useful. And that I've honed skill-wise for a long time. 

What’s one thing you would say to your high school self?

I guess one thing I would say to my high school self would be when you think that you need to have an answer for what you want to be when you grow up or what you want to do in your future, whether it's college or afterwards recognize that that pressure is often not self-created that it's coming from external factors, whether it's, you know, family and friends or just societal pressures. And that's not to say that you shouldn't think about them, but that the time that you spend reflecting about what makes you happy will always be more important and gets you further than just following this endless chain of instruction that you think may be helpful, but may actually just be there as a stepping stone but not actually forming a path.

Magnificent Frigatebird Clinton County by Nathan Goldberg '14

Magnificent Frigatebird Clinton County. Photo by Nathan Goldberg '14

 

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