Creating Opportunity: Building Computer Science Courses through Teacher Education

by Patty Gair @CypressLakeHigh | 11/27/2018

Patty Gair is an AP CSP teacher at Cypress Lake High School Center for the Arts, Fort Myers, FL. She is a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education and an American Ballet Theatre Certified Teacher, as well as an AP Seminar Teacher. Cypress Lake High School serves a diverse population of students who are 85% economically disadvantage.

You never know where a pathway will lead if you are just open to the possibilities. Never truer was this statement then when applied to my journey and my school’s dive into the world of coding education. It all began with another AP course -- AP Seminar. In this course my class explored current issues and topics to develop research reports and argumentative papers. In preparation for this we read articles on technology and jobs which led to a healthy discussion about what prepares us for this future. The ultimate conclusion was tech education, but our school was underdeveloped in this direction. While we had a full curriculum of certification courses in Adobe and Microsoft software products that students were required to take, there were no actual coding courses. Additionally, our community relies mostly on service industries that support tourism and retirement communities. This offers few examples to students of manufacturing, military, or research and development operations that indicate the true wide-ranging demand for high tech workers.

Cypress Lake High School students working with guest instructor to build robot cars

Still, my students were very curious about coding, so armed with a personal interest from some college courses taken in the dark age of computing, I went looking for resources. We tried Hour of Code activities, Blockly and Scratch and they were hooked…in fact, they wanted more. So, I read about College Board’s new AP CSP course and the support from the National Science Foundation and I went with this information to my administration. We even had a list of students who were ready to take the course. We thought everything was in place with a faculty member identified to instruct, but in June this fell through. I wasn’t about to give up, so I asked if I could teach the course if I could find funding for training. And so the journey began.

Reaching out to as many sources as possible, I was offered an opportunity through Harvard to attend the training for their AP CS50 course designed for AP CSP. The work was intense, but the support was amazing and the students and I started the year. A hurricane later, 13 days of school missed, but back on track, we pushed on through the year. As all of us tended to struggle, I started looking for some support and attended a College Board Conference for AP CSP. There I was introduced through a highly experienced teacher to many sources, one being Mobile CSP. After contacting them I was able to access a few units and let my students work with App Inventor. This seemed to be a great bridge for them for understand coding. After coding in App Inventor block language, students were able to convert the small programs to C and Python. We were even able to work through a local grant bringing in an IT professional to work with the students in building and programming robotic cars. It worked really well for building understanding in our population and we were gaining ground.

The look of surprise as Cypress Lake student successfully operates the car she built, programmed, debugged and finally drove

One thing was evident -- more training was needed. I applied for an Infosys USA Foundation scholarship to attend training at the Pathfinders Summer Institute in Bloomington, Indiana for Mobile CSP and was granted the opportunity. The name of the institute “Pathfinders” was perfect because it really helped me stay the course for my students. I attended and received so much more than expected. Not only was the course and the collegial atmosphere perfect for my development, but I learned about other resources such as MicroBit. One terrific bonus was attending a night session on inspiring students to use 3D printing. This was great because we had an unused 3D printer at our school that we added to our class development all from what I learned that evening.

So year two is now moving fully ahead and students are really learning and applying what they understand into their programs. We have even had a second faculty member begin to teach an intro CSP course and interest is building. We are planning to try and hold a school-wide “Hour of Code” event as we continue to grow our program for our students. What is clear at this point is that the students are excited and ready to build their skills and opportunities for post-secondary endeavors. What is also clear is that teacher education and opportunity is the key to building these important programs.