computer science for all

Over 200 schools will help city kick off ‘Computer Science for All’ next school year

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña observes a fourth-grade class at the Brooklyn Arbor Elementary School.

New York City’s plan to give all students access to computer science education will expand by 207 schools next academic year, and for the first time will include elementary schools, officials said Wednesday.

That means at least 232 schools across all five boroughs will provide some computer science, including 67 schools that will offer new computer science classes and programs. The rest will get “intensive” training designed to help teachers incorporate smaller-scale lessons at their schools.

“The workforce of today needs people who are problem solvers, analytical thinkers, work well with others, and create new things that we haven’t even begun to imagine,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said at Brooklyn Arbor Elementary School, one of the schools participating in the city’s computer science initiative.

Of the schools that will provide computer science programming for the first time next school year, 34 will offer AP Computer Science Principles, a one-year high school course, and 22 will offer the Software Engineering Program, a multi-year sequence of classes for middle and high school students.

Eleven schools will participate in a new pilot program announced Wednesday that will create a “junior” version of the Software Engineering Program for elementary schools in which computer science topics are taught at each grade level. And another 153 schools will have teachers participate in a six-day training course, called STEM Institute CS Track, to help teachers incorporate computer science in their school’s curriculum.

The number of new programs is in line with the city’s previous projections. In January, the city announced that it expected at least 50 schools would offer the more intensive computer science programs, and asked schools to apply for them. Wednesday’s announcement is the latest step in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Computer Science for All” program designed to give all of the city’s 1.1 million public school students access to computer science education by 2025.

To achieve that ambitious goal, the city will have to train hundreds of teachers at each grade level, figure out how to give schools tools to develop those programs, and even overcome basic barriers such as lack of equipment or internet access. Education officials said that 360 teachers of subjects ranging from science to art are getting “rigorous” and ongoing training, including summer sessions.

The program isn’t without its critics, though, some of whom argue that training non-specialists to teach computer science with a few professional development sessions is the same as giving a math teacher a crash course in history and expecting them to teach it well.

For her part, Fariña said the training will be responsive to teachers’ needs and won’t focus on rote explanations of what computer science is.

“This is not about coming in and getting a book and [filling] in the blanks,” she said. “It’s about what do you want to learn? What are the conditions in your classroom? And what do you need to change in your classroom to make yourself a teacher of computer science?”

Fariña also touted computer science programs as a way for schools to brand themselves as innovative, and also said schools that wanted to participate in the intensive programs had to come up with plans to include women, black, and Hispanic students.

“We want to be sure there’s a diverse workforce both by gender and by ethnicity,” she said. “This gives us the opportunity to bring the real world into the classroom in a way that’s exciting.”

In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach.

They’re conducting a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse. The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” Elisha Holmes said Friday as he worked with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the $400,000 price tag of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater that hasn’t been functional for years.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

In the Classroom

When students at an Indianapolis high school weren’t talking about Charlottesville, this teacher started the conversation.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Delvonte Arnold started a conversation about Charlottesville in his world history class.

When teacher Delvonte Arnold came to school after a weekend of racist violence, he expected students to have questions. But to his shock, Charlottesville didn’t come up.

“No one asked me any type of questions about it,” said Arnold, who teachers world history at Arlington High School, a far east side school that could close as part of an Indianapolis Public Schools reconfiguration proposal.

But Arnold thought it was important for his students to talk about the white supremacist rally and the car that plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters — a day that ended in tragedy with three dead and dozens more injured.

So Thursday afternoon, in the 20 minutes before the bell rang at the end of the day, Arnold decided to start the conversion. He and two other teachers brought together about 15 students, most of them African American, to talk about the rally.

“They are growing up black in America,” said Arnold, who is black. “You have to know what racism looks like, and we have to figure out a way to do things that will make a change in our communities.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teaun Paige is a sophomore at Arlington High School.

Teaun Paige, a sophomore in the world history class, said that she learned about Charlottesville from her mother last weekend. Teachers have occasionally brought it up this week, she said, but students haven’t spoken much about it.

But even though she hasn’t spent much time talking about the violence with her friends, she said “it feels like a big deal.”

“I mean, if it happened here it would be way more of a big deal,” Paige added, “but it’s still a big deal.”

One reason Arnold likes to discuss issues in the news is because it gives students a chance to pause the reading and writing they are usually focused on and think about the world.

Because not all of them are paying attention to national news, he needs to start by giving students background information. Thursday, the class started by watching a short clip from “Vice News Tonight.”

“They are engaged, but first they have to find out about these things,” he said. “I have to stimulate the conversation.”

The class also talked about racism and terrorism last week, Paige said.

“It turned into something really serious,” she said. “We started actually putting our feelings out there about racism.”