Thursday, October 3, 2013

For Boston’s techiest academies, even cutting edge doesn’t seem like enough

09/30/2013 | 11:43 AM, By George LeVines / 

Tuesday afternoon just before the bell, ninth-graders in Joyce White’s class are learning to make gradients with Adobe Illustrator.

Malik’s gradient is a clean, circular grayscaled approach. The girl across the aisle from Malik has taken a chaotic, technicolor start to her assignment. Both are students at TechBoston Academy, a public pilot school that was leading the charge in using technology to teach when the doors opened 2002.

TechBoston is still near the forefront when it comes to using technology but as Nora Vernazza, co-headmaster, acknowledges, the game has changed since 2002. Learning to make gradients might not be enough.

More advanced computer literacy — especially learning to read and write code — are getting some attention in Boston area high schools. Widespread use of computers isn’t exactly new, so why the buzz now?

Trinity College Computer Science professor Ralph Morelli said he thinks Chris Bosh and may be the culprits. The NBA star and recording artist were featured in a February YouTube video posted by endorsing early code literacy and education, even calling it a “superpower”.

Anyone who has ever clicked “Save” in a text editor only to watch a program come alive knows that indeed the experience can be a special one. But Boston area schools aren’t exactly capturing the magic just yet.

A July Boston Globe article reported a two-sided problem. Both slim offerings and a lack of interest from students stymie the current status of computer science education but a handful of innovators are beginning to address what estimates will be a 1,000,000 job surplus in computing jobs by 2020.

Ralph Morelli is one of those people. Morelli is amongst a group that created new Advanced Placement curriculum in computer science called Computer Science: Principles. The College Board — charged with Advanced Placement oversight — gives a May 2016 projected release for a credited version of the course.

The existing iteration of the AP exam in computer science is an in depth enterprise into the Java language. That curriculum has struggled as 15 times the number of kids take the chemistry and calculus AP exams than the current computer science offering, Morelli said.

“My idea was to use App Inventor to teach CS priciples,” Morelli said referring MIT’s Android application development platform.

Two instructors in Massachusetts are trying out the material on their students in the curriculum’s second phase of piloting.

Kelly Powers, chair of Marlborough’s Advanced Math and Science Academy (AMSA) Charter School computer science department, and Eric Henry, of Boston Public’s O’Bryant School of Math and Science, are both giving the course a run through this year.

Each spent their time in the industry and each — like Chris Bosh and — knows the importance of computer literacy that goes beyond using Microsoft suite and dives into the realm of understanding, communicating and creating with the machines we use casually every day.

“[The current computer science AP] is the only [math and science] AP that has declining enrollment and it’s something we really need to look at,” Henry said.

Henry currently has 31 students enrolled in his pilot course. Getting students engaged with computers when they are young is something that needs to happen not just as a city or state but as a country, Henry said.

“They need to learn not just how to use applications but how to think in a 21st century way,” he said.

At AMSA in Marlborough the situation is different for Kelly Powers. AMSA is unique in that computer science is part of the core curriculum. Students are using the coding education tools Scratch and Alice as early as sixth grade. In seventh they move on to learning Python. HTML and Javascript as eighth-graders and a choice between pure Java and the pilot AP course as ninth-graders. By tenth grade students are looking into what it really means to design a web site by looking at the business decisions involved.

The goal at AMSA is getting people to understand that the education system is not building crucial computational thinking skills, Powers said.

“If you have children wouldn’t you want your kids to get this exposure,” she said, “We’re not equipping them with the skills they’re going to need in the 21st century.”

AMSA is also partnered with the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network (MassCAN, not to be confused with MassCann a marijuana legalization coalition) a group with both public and private backing that aims to bring a standardized foundation in computing to all Massachusetts students.

Heather Johnson Carey, executive committee member of MassCAN and a senior vice president of the Education Foundation for the Mass Technology Leadership Council said in an email that the current “groundswell” of attention to computing education is due to both industry struggling to find skilled technology workers, students struggling to find jobs and a common understanding that tech powers much of our personal and professional lives.

“It’s no longer enough to know how to just use technology, you must understand how to build it,” Carey said.

In June MassCAN addressed state lawmakers and education officials regarding their hopes. It’s a massive undertaking that Vernazza – along with some other educators – looks at apprehensively.

Getting staff up to scratch and running into quantity over quality issues with such a broad stroke approach are among Vernazza’s concerns.

MassCAN became associated with its work on standardization early on and is misperceived as only taking a top down approach, Carey said in response to the criticism. The organization will be revealing some news about district engagement later this month, said Carey.

Back at TechBoston, Vernazza is addressing the needs at her school. She hopes to provide every student with tech electives that would act as a core class in the near future. She tasked a Harvard intern with creating a Technology Integration Leadership Team and said she wants take advantage of all the tech industry in Boston and Cambridge to foster the transition.

Will it work?

“It has to. If we are TechBoston, we need to provide that foundation,” said Vernazza.

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