HMC Professors Win NSF Grant for Middle School Computer Science Program

Harvey Mudd College computer science professors Mike Erlinger and Zach Dodds received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant last month to continue helping middle schools incorporate computer science into their curriculum.

The professors won $596,501 to fund their program, called “MyCS: Middle Years Computer Science.” Last summer, the program brought 16 teachers from the Pomona Unified and Claremont Unified school districts to HMC’s campus to learn the basics concepts of computer programming.

“High school is really crowded nowadays,” Dodds said. “The curriculum that’s required basically packs all four years. Middle school still has some flexibility in the curriculum.”

Erlinger said that one goal of the program is to expose female students to computer science in middle school, when many are open to learning about science.

“You lose girls by high school,” he said. “In middle school, girls still don’t think that science isn’t for them.”

The NSF grant strives to support programs that focus on underrepresented groups in the science community.

“Pomona Unified is a minority school district and has a large number of first-generation college students,” Dodds said.

As a result of the program, there are now between 15 and 20 elective courses in computer science offered throughout middle schools in Pomona Unified, and both Dodds and Erlinger hope to use their grant money to solidify the program’s place in the curriculum.

“We try to give the teachers the basics of computer science, but since neither Zach nor I have experience in teaching fifth graders, we aren’t going to try and teach pedagogical techniques to the teachers that attend our sessions,” Erlinger said. “We want to give them a series of lesson plans for modules to teach computer science, to give them choices for how they want to apply that information to their own classrooms.”

The teachers and school districts can determine how information and curriculum from MyCS can best fit their needs.

“Village Academy High School in Pomona has expressed interest in following a computer science pathway, establishing a continuum for students who want to continue with computer science courses after their initial elective. The final goal would be the addition of an AP Computer Science course to the school’s curriculum,” said Gabriela Gamiz-Gomez, Administrator of HMC’s Homework Hotline.

Gamiz-Gomez was one of the first contacts with the Pomona Unified School District and has helped facilitate the relationship between HMC and Pomona Unified administrators.

Dodds and Erlinger are also looking to extend the program beyond the Inland Empire. They recently have been in contact with a school district in Lihue, HI, that has expressed interest in participating in MyCS.

“Lihue works because it is a different type of minority community, and it allows us to see how the program functions even if we’re not right there,” Erlinger said.

According to Erlinger, the Lihue district is also a prime candidate for the educational research aspect of the NSF grant due to its isolation and the retention of students and teachers over longer periods of time.

“In other places, everyone leaves, but in small, isolated places like that, you can track students and teachers over a longer period of time and see the effects the introduction of computer science education can make,” Erlinger said.

Along with Gamiz-Gomez, Erlinger and Dodds are also attempting to expand HMC’s Homework Hotline to cater to students in computer science courses taught by teachers who attended MyCS workshops at HMC.

“We realized we had a support system for the teachers but not the students,” Erlinger said.

The hotline, which is still being developed, will allow students to call and ask questions directly to HMC students with backgrounds in computer science. 

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