Utah Schools Try New Approach to Computer Science

Westminster College, with the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation, is developing a new approach to teaching computer science for students in secondary schools. The idea is to help students who already have a lot of experience in using technology like computers, tablets and smartphones, but don’t have a good understanding of how these gadgets actually function. As a result, Helen Hu, who is heading up the effort for Westminster, favors a more hands-on approach which evolved into a course called Exploring Computer Science currently being piloted by several schools in Utah.

The course deals less with the actual mechanics of computer programming and instead teaches kids how to use computer technology to solve problems. As part of the class, students learn how to define a problem, break it down into smaller steps and how to test their solutions. The first assignment, given by Michael Corbett, whose Lehi Junior High classroom is serving is one of the testing sites for the new course, is typical. Instead of having his students in front of keyboards, he asked them instead to interview their friends and family members about their technology needs and how best to meet them.

Although the initial pilot program is limited, Hu, who is partnering with Utah Office of Education and several Utah-area colleges and universities, is hoping to train up to 100 Utah teachers over the next three years to prepare them to teach the course in their schools. This would bring the course to about half of Utah’s junior high schools.

“It’s important to actually engage the students and get them excited about the area because not enough of them are finding it exciting the way we’re teaching it, the old way,” Hu said. “There’s so much more in computer science than learning how to communicate with the computer, and because we [normally] teach that in the first class, we sometimes scare away students.”

It’s unfortunate so many students are scared away, Hu said, because it’s a field where job opportunities are actually growing.

Hu said that the job situation is such that she regularly gets more job notices than she gets students, and months after her graduate students have secured employment, she still gets emails asking them to interview for positions.

Nice Reitz-Larsen, who teaches Computer Science at Salt Lake City’s West High, isn’t scheduled to participate in the pilot program until this January, but she said that she found the preliminary information about the course so engaging that she has already started integrating parts of it into her current CS class.

Carl Lyman, a specialist over information technology education at the state office, said the class teaches the types of 21st century skills that are just as important as the computer-science material itself.

It’s a curriculum that has already been tried with some success in places such as Los Angeles and Chicago, Hu said. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the program has grown steadily in recent years, and last school year, participation among boys was only about 30 percent higher than among girls.

It may still seem like a large gap, but that’s far more girls than in many other types of computer science classes. Hu said she’s sometimes the only female in the room in her upper-level classes.