If you’re learning a new language in school, you usually start with a basic class and then build up to harder ones. That’s not the way it often works with computer science.
If a school offers computer science classes at all, it likely offers advanced programming or robotics classes. The only kids brave enough to take them have been at-home-computer whizzes. They tend to be boys, according to state data.
Some school districts, like Burlington, are offering classes to inspire beginners to like computer science.
“Okay, so question of the day: Algorithms!” teacher Shereen Tyrrell said, standing at the front of the class holding a bag of candy. She asked the class to identify the three components of algorithms.
A girl at the front of the class answers: “Iteration, selection and sequence.” She gets to choose a piece of candy from Tyrrell’s bag.
Tyrrell cites an example from everday life to illustrate part of the correct answer: “Sequence in order matters. If you get in your car before you grab your keys, it matters, right?”
Students in this class learn how to think the way computers do so they can solve problems, design games and make apps. They write papers about the societal impact of digital technology. The class was designed by The College Board to get young women and black and Latino students into computer science, a field that has been long dominated by white and Asian men. Burlington is one of a few dozen districts in Massachusetts to offer it.
The course that Tyrrell teaches, Computer Science Principles, or CSP, is one of the few classes out there that meets new standards the state adopted in 2016. The old standards called for teaching kids how to use computers. The new ones recommend teaching kids how to create apps and other technology.
In one lesson, Tyrrell dealt playing cards to groups of students.
“What we’re going to do now is we’re going to get in pairs, and you’re actually going to come up with an algorithm for sorting playing cards,” Tyrrell explained to the class.
The course has introduced many students to a world they didn’t know existed.
“I didn’t know it was an option,” Katelyn Conley, a 16-year-old junior, said about computer science. She took her first computer science class as a sophomore and regrets not starting sooner. “No one really told us you can go into this,” she added.
Seventeen-year-old Jessie Goober, a senior, stumbled into computer science because her study hall teacher happened to teach a computer science class. That teacher suggested she try it.
“I never really knew what it was. It was like a foreign thing,” Goober said. “No one ever said it to me, explicitly, ‘This is something you could be good at.’”
Goober is good at it — her teachers say she gets top grades. She said she loves the problem-solving computer science requires and how it can be used to approach social problems. It’s what she wants to study in college.
“I never thought that being a senior in high school I’d be applying to a computer science program,” she said. “Now that’s something that’s driving me and motivating me, and I’m really interested in the future.”
Burlington school officials want more students like Goober to learn about computer science earlier on. Tyrrell plans to send girls in her class to talk to middle school students about the interesting things they can do with computing skills. She'll also talk to guidance counselors and teachers about directing kids to these classes.
“We want to try to increase the odds that kids get to touch the subject, so there’s more equity.” Tyrrell said. “So kids have more of an opportunity to pursue this if they love it.”
Tyrrell came from the private sector and education advocacy work. She was one of a handful of people who applied for the position teaching computer science. Superintendent Eric Conti reached out to her, even though she had never taught before.
The superintendent “is willing to take risks to try and bring computer science to more kids,” Tyrrell said about her hiring. “Not every school would do that.”
Burlington High School has also trained math teachers to teach computer science courses. As the district tries to increase the number of students taking these courses, district officials plan to train more math teachers — along with history and English teachers — to teach computer science.
Read the next story in our series on teaching computer science about a school district that starts teaching computing skills in kindergarten.
Our coverage of K through 12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.