HMC Professors Promote CS Education

As the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields continue to increase in influence at both the colleges and K-12 schools, two Harvey Mudd College professors are working to strengthen computer science education for young students in both the Inland Empire and Hawaii. 

“Right now, the way our education system works is that the lucky and/or wealthy have the opportunity to learn the field, while the unlucky and/or unwealthy do not, so that’s what we’re trying to change,” said computer science professor Zachary Dodds, who helped establish the Middle-years Computer Science (MyCS) program at HMC.

Dodds and fellow HMC computer science professor Michael Erlinger provide a one-week workshop for middle school teachers during the summer. The professors designed the program for middle school education programs, although they do not work exclusively with that age range.  

“We’d like to see middle-schoolers and students in general move away from being consumers of computer science to creators of computer science,” Erlinger said. “They look at computer science—because they don’t understand what’s going on—as something someone else does, and we’re trying to make them feel that computer science is something they could do.”

The professors launched the program in 2009. Erlinger said he was inspired to get involved with education outreach when his granddaughter, who was interested in math and science, was in middle school. 

“Everything studies tell us is that girls walk away from science in middle school and high school, so I started teaching at her school,” he said. “I realized students could do unbelievable things in terms of understanding things that I was talking about, and that as a community we’re missing the boat in getting kids interested in computer science from an early age.” 

MyCS serves two partners: the Pomona Unified School District and a school district in Lihue, Hawaii.

Erlinger, who knows middle school teachers in Lihue, said that the professors chose to partner with the Kauai district because it includes ethnic and socioeconomic minority groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields.

“Lihue is a closed community with three high schools and three middle schools, so by making any changes there to the curriculum you can really see progress,” Erlinger added. “It also makes it easier to do long-period assessments.” 

The professors do not try to change the structure of classes at the Pomona and Lihue schools, but instead provide teachers with resources to familiarize students with computer science at a young age.

“We’ve done it by trying to teach the teachers, not necessarily the students,” Erlinger said.

At the summer MyCS workshops, the professors give lessons on using programming languages such as Scratch, HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. They also cover topics such as the parts of the computer, artificial intelligence, and social responsibility on the Internet.

“We don’t pretend to say this is a fitted curriculum,” Dodds said. “Our hope is that teachers take parts of the curriculum and fit it into what they are doing.”

Since its creation, the program has expanded to involve more HMC students. They create exercises for the program and rewrite technical information to be understandable to teachers with no experience in computer science. 

Erlinger wrote that he and Dodds are working on an online MyCS class to provide lectures and resources for teachers, and are also planning to improve the program’s website. 

MyCS is funded by multiple grants, including a small grant from Google and a three-year grant for $596,501 that the professors received from the National Science Foundation in 2012. 

“Education is something that could really change society, and colleges and universities are the harbors of that,” Erlinger said.

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