Computer science education is notoriously difficult to implement effectively. Doing so in a way that attracts girls and minority students to the field presents an additional challenge. While schools across the country are working hard to confront these issues, the numbers are less than encouraging.
This is even true of New York city – the most diverse city in the nation, and possibly the world. Sixty percent of people employed in New York’s tech industries are male, and 62 percent are white, according to a recent study conducted by the Center for an Urban Future (City’s tech workers are still mostly white, male, study finds). It turns out that NYC’s tech workforce is less racially diverse than those of major U.S. tech firms, which on average are 60% white. Still, NYC employs more female techies than those firms, whose employees are a mere 29% female (New York City’s Tech Industry Is 62 Percent White, 60 Percent Male). Clearly, more must be done to attract girls and underrepresented students to careers in industries that have grown by 71 percent over the last decade.
New York Tech Meetup (NYTM) is the largest meetup in the world with membership currently at just over 46,000. Founded in 2004, NYTM hosts monthly events where members gather to watch emerging tech startups demo new ideas, hear from leading thinkers in the tech world, and expand their networks. NYTM (headed by Executive Director Jessica Lawrence, @) is also a non-profit that supports the growth and diversification of New York’s technology sector.
The meetup also has a thriving email list that allows members to post news, questions and comments on matters relevant to tech entrepreneurship and education. NYTM’s email list provides members a platform for community-wide discussions and exchange of ideas. Many of the members are tech advocates, city government officials, teachers, coders, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and college students.
One Woman’s Quest to Improve STEM Education for All Students
Natasha Green, or “Tasha,” is one such NYTM member. Tasha is a full-stack Web Developer, former New York City high school math teacher, and former Girls Who Code instructor. She’s also CEO of WeIntervene LLC, which offers an online platform for helping school counselors and social workers connect their students with the community resources they need. She even owns her own archery club, Hidden Gems Archery.
Tasha is clearly passionate about creating new opportunities for kids through STEM education. She recently posted a link to the New York City Department of Education STEM Framework for fellow NYTM members who plan to volunteer with the schools:
“Hi, this is for anyone who plans on volunteering or being involved with schools and the STEM programs for 2015 – 2016: http://on.nyc.gov/1JNonEz
‘…[I]n the United States, there are concerns about the achievement gaps that exist among the various demographic groups, our rankings on international assessments, and the ability of all American students to meet the skills demanded by the 21st century STEM labor force…recruiting women and underrepresented minorities to complete degrees and pursue careers in STEM remains challenging…The research suggests that many women and underrepresented minority students enrolled in college switch from STEM majors to non-STEM majors prior to graduation, citing a lack of pre-college preparation or sensitivity to their less-than-average grades received in STEM courses.’”
Her email message touched off a lively debate among several NYTM members about the challenge of implementing quality STEM education in New York City schools, and the perils of trying to teaching relevant computer science and coding to students in school systems that aren’t designed to keep up-to-date with tech industry trends and standards. Their insights, based on personal experience working in tech and teaching computer science in city schools, are surprising and sobering.
Are we Teaching the Technology Skills that Employers Need Most?
The discourse on STEM may not always be tapping into the differences among disciplines, some say. These differences can be vital to covering appropriate topics and skills, even among subfields of a single discipline, argues David V. Corbin (a 30+ year professional software developer and President of Dynamic Concepts Development). In his email response to Tasha’s message, Corbin noted that discussions about technology usually don’t differentiate between tech disciplines:
“[O]ne problem I continually see…is the mixing of different domains such as Computer Science, Software Engineering, Application Development and a host of others… I disagree with the relevance of CS [Computer SCIENCE] as the applicable domain in general. Computer Technology, Application Development, and perhaps even Software Engineering are all domains that can be introduced early and broadly. Even at the professional level, there are few who have really studied the science of computers.”
“STEM isn’t one thing — it’s multiple fields… the core of what we do is about teaching the kids to think and problem solve… Take a look at DOE and you’ll see that in spite of the fact that there are people in the system doing great work, the DOE has repeatedly decided to place people with neither computer science nor teaching experience in charge of computer science education. Look at who’s developing the city’s tech talent pipeline – not an educator among them and limited real tech people. Would you want your kid in a math class taught by an English major with a few weeks training? Of course not.”
Zemansky (who left his job as a software engineer at Goldman Sachs to teach full time) shared his recent blog post on the topic with the group, “Why I have no faith in NYC Doing CS Ed right” — which he notes was inspired by this email thread discussion. In it, he outlines his frustrations with trying to implement CSTUY with the New York Department of Education (NYDOE). CSTUY’s mission was born out of the frustrations that many teachers are experiencing when trying to acquire up-to-date resources and technology curricula in classrooms. CSTUY’s website mission statement would likely resonate with many educators:
“Having dealt with the frustrations of working within the system to try to bring more opportunities to more youngsters and inspired by their alumni community, Mike, Sam, and JonAlf, have joined with Jennifer Hsu and Artie Jordan along with other members of the Stuy CS Community to form CSTUY, Computer Science and Technology for Urban Youth. An organization dedicated to bringing computer science and technology related educational opportunities to high school and middle school students.” — https://cstuy.org/
It should come as no surprise then, that Zemansky’s ideas about computer science education may seem radical compared to traditional education. Notes Zemansky:
“…most CS majors still believe that all the kids should and are going on to get their doctorates but at it’s core – and certainly the core of what we do is about teaching the kids to think and problem solve.”
Tasha is also a supporter of emphasizing problem-solving skills in computer science education:
“There are various ways to teach the beginning levels of CompSci currently such as Exploring Computer Science curriculum created by Joanna Goode. This makes it easy to teach students one layer at a time the rudimentary concepts. Yes, the teacher will not hold a PhD in the Assembly language or understand about the Heap, but getting our students to think about problems and solving them is just as important.”
Having worked with hundreds of tech companies over his 3-decade career, Corbin offers his nuanced perspective on what schools should be teaching students to prepare them for real-life positions in tech fields:
“For the majority of organizations where software is being created, there is little or no need for the Computer Science part (in the true form). Now if one is looking to work at Intel, Microsoft Research, or other similar groups, then this changes, but it is still a minority position (from a % of employees involved in software) at most of them.
Then comes the Engineering aspects. For this I will use a comparison to other fields such as Electrical, Chemical and Mechanical Engineering. There are typically many more technicians and other roles involved than there are engineers. While some do transition from technician to engineer, many choose to remain technicians and perfect their craft. If everyone was an engineer, then there would be problems.
What the majority of the industry needs are the people with the skills to develop an application (which may be used in-house or sold as a product) and also to support that application throughout the entire lifecycle. What tends to surprise many is that the skill sets for this area include so much more than “programming”; yet little of this is considered part of the curriculums that I have seen.”
Which Programming Languages are Best for Kids?
Visual, drag-and-drop (DnD) programming environments are making their way into an increasing number of classrooms. One example is Scratch, a system designed to empower students from 8 to 16 to create and share interactive stories, games, and animations while honing their coding skills. But while some view DnD languages as easier to understand and more attractive to kids, not everyone is convinced. Just ask Mike Zamansky.
“I’m personally not a fan of scratch and DnD languages at my level (upper middle school and high school)…from what I’ve seen (25 years teaching / observing) kids at the end of middle school through high school do perfectly fine with text based languages,” Zamansky says. “I’ve heard that concepts such as an else clause are conveyed more easily with drag and drop than in a language like Python but then, I’d imagine it’s also easier to convey that concept in a language like Scheme.”
Tasha agrees on some of these points, saying that her high school students thought Scratch was “too simple.” Still, it may be a way to reach some kids – particularly younger ones. Other educators do find visual coding programs to be valuable tools that introduce kids to programming at the conceptual level in an understandable and fun way. Brett Somers, a Product Manager for software companies and a former K-12 science teacher is one of them. He responds:
“I’ve recently moved from the San Francisco Bay area where I’ve been an experienced product manager for software companies and also a credentialed middle and high school science and elementary teacher. I’ve observed that teachers and students view the visual programming languages as “easier” when the reality is that the teachers aren’t trained in the full spectrum of software development, let’s say the “STEM” process including design and requirements, the logic and planning that’s required to build complex programs. Nor do they seem to be using the more complex features of the the visual coding programs such as the physics engines, conditionals etc.
Visual coding programs offer this: a means by which students can experiment with different coding functions to build a conceptual framework of the interaction of coding objects. It also, equally a[s] important, gives them the ability to build rapid prototypes where students can focus on the whole Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) and experience all the STEM components from visual and logic design to implementation, testing and so forth.”
“I’m not sure that I disagree with a more basic skills based approach to a CS school. It accomplishes three things: (1) it produces more immediate results, which is important for politicians who put their ass on the line to move earth and make something like this happen, (2) it simply offers a lower barrier to entry, which skewed a bit, can be viewed as more broad interest among students, (3) it can be a gateway to driving people to a more CS-centric education later in HS and college (or out in the real world, if they choose not to go into debt first before starting their career) by virtue of item 2.
Can Schools Keep Up with Technology Innovation?
For an outsider, trying to engage a top-heavy school district can sometimes be a challenge, particularly in a city as large as New York. Zamansky says he’s been discouraged by this very issue, and other respondents agreed. Ed Potter (an emerging technologies and former SUNY Adjunct Professor, @ejpusa) shared his personal experience:
“[I] just don’t think the bureaucracy of the NYC School System (I’m sure there are some great projects brewing, posted to this list) is capable of implementing STEM based programs for the broad student population. Just not in their DNA. The bureaucracy is too entrenched, needs a total re/boot…
NYCDOE: Good intentions for sure, but they are just over whelmed with the shear numbers. The students already know far more then the teachers. Just the way it goes. Ask the students for direction. The suggested reading [How Are Teachers Using Computers In Instruction, 2001]? 2001? Scary.”
Rick Richardson expressed concerns about the lack of responsiveness and flexibility of the education profession as a whole as well as the lack of readily available and useful data.
Explains Richardson, “Having fought bureaucracies in the Department of Energy, as well as a couple very large software institutions, I’ve found that change comes in the form of “sound bites” and memes that can be easily and quickly communicated and socialized. Sad to say, but most politicians aren’t going to put their butts on the line for an entire school curriculum that they don’t/can’t understand… [T]he entire education system is in dire need of disruption, I know there are many education technology efforts underway, (many based out of our wonderful city). They seem scattered and disorganized, though, and I’m not sure how much of an impact the individual or combined efforts are having. Does anyone have any statistics on the penetration of edtech?”
While other members agreed with Richardson’s point, Tasha expressed the importance of highlighting the good work that the New York Department of Education (@NYCSchools) does in the face of so many challenges. She writes:
“I commend the NYCDOE for wanting to expose our students to Computer Science, Web Development, Robotics and etc. in the best way they know how. Granted, they are not like the lean startups we are used to and they don’t iterate as quickly as we would like. But, that being said, the fact that there is a STEM Framework out there with the DOE stamp of approval means they want to have conversations and they want to do better. At least the DOE knows information and awareness will be the first step in having teachers who are capable of teaching these topics to obtain an additional license in Technology Education.”
Change is certainly happening (though not nearly as fast as everyone would like). In July, the NYCDOE’s hosted its first ever 2015 Summer STEM Institute as a part of their CTE And STEM Initiatives. Funded by GE Foundation (@GE_Foundation), the 2015 Summer STEM Institute was the first-ever intensive, 3-day, citywide STEM Institute where teachers and school leaders throughout the city had professional learning and the opportunity to work with STEM partner organizations (IAT participated as a STEM partner). Over 300 educators and school leaders from 100 schools attended the Institute. In addition to training, educators will receive continued support in planning and implementing quality STEM instruction throughout the coming school year.
Having said that, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. All communities, and the students that live in them, are different. But New York’s school system is set up to take these differences into account and teachers and principals should feel empowered by this. Tasha points out:
”[G]uess what is the most awesome thing about our school system? Each principal in their school has creative and educational jurisdiction to create a curriculum that will bring out the most in our students. So, we cannot expect the DOE as a conglomerate in its own right to handle everything. Each school has a responsibility also to want to bring STEM to the students.”
Does it Take a Village to Educate a Student?
In as large and diverse a city as New York, more resources may be required to expose all kids to rapidly changing ideas, technologies, and workforce needs. While Tasha says the NYDOE wants to do more, she admits that “they cannot do it by themselves.”
“Uniformity will not touch the wide range of students that will need to be exposed to STEM topics in order to find the individuals who are gifted and intellectually curious about these fields… I have come to realize the exposure and teaching efforts done by CSTUY, C/I, Allstar Code, Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code, The Knowledge House, Khan Academy, Silicon Harlem and etc. are all needed,” says Tasha.
New York is fortunate in that there are many groups, events and organizations for teachers and parents to participate in to further their knowledge in technology and to have these important discussions. In addition to NY Tech Meetup, consider checking out the following NY-based education Meetups that have proven to be valuable resources for info and networking for STEM educators (if you’re not in NY, look into education Meetups in your area!):
- NY EdTech – With almost 5,000 members, NY EdTech is one of the most popular edtech groups in the city. Their goal is to bring educators, technologies and entrepreneurs together to “talk, share stories, and learn from each other. What makes students tick? What works when working with(in) institutions? How can technology help?Where are the opportunities to help the students? How can we help improve education?”
- Moonshot Education Project – A growing community of parents, teachers, scientist, engineers and moonshot thinkers focused on developing an open source educational platform designed to provide education to millions of underserved children.
- Arts EdTech NYC – A group for artists and performing artists, educators in K-12 and higher ed, teaching artists, arts & culture or recreational organizations, technology enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and anyone interested in the intersection of the arts with education and technology.
- Educational Data Mining – A group that aims to gather people who are interested in using educational data mining and learning analytics to improve the quality education we are providing.
- Education Idea Exchange – Organized by 4.0 Schools, this is a community of educators, entrepreneurs, designers and developers (as well as other Education Disruptors) who come together to foster innovation and disruption in the education space.
One thing is for sure, educators and entrepreneurs are having compelling discussions on where STEM is going and how we can get there. Tasha sees the light at the end of the tunnel and reminds us that we can achieve the seemingly impossible together.
“We, as the larger community, have a lot of super smart people who can solve many problems… Maybe more of us need to see what our local schools are doing in the fields we are passionate about, and if they are doing nothing let’s build something… I believe this is a time of innovation and no one should be shy about suggesting ways to educate our students in the jobs that currently exists and the future jobs that aren’t even documented yet. So I will just be like everyone else, reading, learning, volunteering, and contributing when I can to the overall conversations of STEM in the public schools” — Natasha Green
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