Pittsburgh Public Schools Tackles Computer Science With Volunteer Help

The school district is one of the first in the state to work with the volunteer program Technology Education and Literacy in Schools.

by Molly Born, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / December 29, 2016 0
Coding remains a major policy conversation across the country. hackNY.org/Flickr CC 2.0

(TNS) — In a first-period classroom at Pittsburgh Carrick High School this month, software engineers Sarah Storck and Mario Signore walked a group of students through a lengthy rubric for the day's assignment.

"OK, now you guys can start designing your scene," Mr. Signore concluded, amid groans.

"We just wanna code!" junior Asia Parker protested.

"There's a lot of planning that goes into writing code!" he said.

This room of budding computer programmers, co-taught for free by young professionals in the field, is a scene that didn't exist last school year at Carrick. Pittsburgh Public Schools is the first district in the state to implement this volunteer program,Technology Education and Literacy in Schools, aimed at closing the computer science gap in high schools and increasing the number of women and students of color enrolled in a such a course.

Pennsylvania ranks eighth in the country for the number of students scoring three or higher on AP computer science exams, according to the National Math and Science Institutes, which is partnering with TEALS. The AP exam is graded on a five-point scale, and a score of three or higher is considered passing. But of the more than 1,100 students in the state who passed the exam last year, only 21 were from Pittsburgh Public.

The district offered computer science classes last year at Allderdice, Brashear and Science and Technology Academy and added them this year at Carrick and CAPA 6-12. Officials want to bring the program to all of the district's high schools next year.

Kashif Henderson, PPS' coordinator for K-12 gifted and talented students, said he first heard about the TEALS program in a news story. He started making contacts and setting the plan in motion with the help of  Mark Stehlik, Carnegie Mellon's Assistant Dean for Outreach in the School of Computer Science who led lead the effort to recruit volunteers last spring, and Nathaniel Granor, lead program manager for TEALS East Region.

At Carrick, one of the two volunteers leads the class every day, alternating weeks. Mr. Signore works full time at Think Through Math, an online supplemental math program, Ms. Storck at Google. Most of the roughly 20 volunteers are CMU alumni.

"It's such a great career path," Mr. Signore said. "It would be easy to find a job for these students. The more people I can get to do it the better."

The regular classroom teacher, Brian Hoelzle, oscillates between being an instructor and a student himself because his background in many of the concepts was limited. He and other classroom teachers received training over the summer, with the plan of taking over teaching the class next year.

"This stuff's all new to me. I couldn't do it without them," Mr. Hoelzle said of the volunteers.

Asia, the student eager to get started writing code, likes chemistry and math and said she came up with a design in class for a machine that precisely weighs small amounts of chemicals -- helpful for measuring materials in a lab while wearing bulky gloves, for instance.

"Then I found out CMU was doing that. I'm very mad at them," she said in jest. "I want to do something like that for chemistry because it makes my job easier."

"I am[from] the generation of technology, and I need to know how to use computers in the correct way."

About half the students in the Carrick class were missing on a recent visit, and Mr. Signore said he hopes to see more students of color in the Carrick class in the future. Mr. Henderson noted Allderdice and Brashear have some of the most diverse schools and "when you go into a lot of those courses you will see a lot of diversity."

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