March 3, 2024

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Few Students Take Computer Science. This District Offers a Blueprint for Changing That

Few Students Take Computer Science. This District Offers a Blueprint for Changing That

Just six percent of high school students in the United States take computer science classes. The numbers are even lower for elementary and middle school.

But you’d never know that if you dropped by Long Island’s Mineola school district. Computer science learning is everywhere.

At the Hampton Street School, pre-kindergartners practiced beginner coding skills as they stumbled after bumble bee robots during a lesson in February, pressing a button one time for each step they wanted the machine to take. “This beebot won’t listen!” shouted one exasperated boy, still honing his counting skills.

Students attend a coding class at Hampton Street School in Mineola, New York, March 13, 2023.

At Mineola Middle School, which serves grades 5 to 7, students showed off their coding projects in computer science class, including a hide-and-seek digital game, in which players help a girl find her bunny and another where users can explore a virtual coffee shop.

Down the hall, 5th graders put their design thinking skills to use in one of the district’s two fabrication labs or “fab labs”—essentially a cross between a modern school “maker space” and a traditional school wood-shop class.

The Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles class at Mineola High School was packed, because the district requires all 9th graders to take the course. The College Board, which operates the AP program, is not aware of another district in the country that has that requirement, a spokeswoman said.

A district taking such a systemic approach to computer science is “rare,” said Robyn Speed, the director of outreach and adoption at Code.org, a nonprofit that works to expand access to computer science. “It’s inspiring.”

“The things that stood out to me was the degree to which they’ve invested in elementary and early start throughout,” said Speed, speaking based on a reporter’s description of the district’s activities. “A lot of times, even when district [leaders] do engage, they will do lightweight things like Hour of Code and fun clubs and things like that. But it’s not this substantive content area experience across grades. And that’s what we want to get schools to.”

More schools are adding computer science courses: 53 percent of high schools offered a class last school year, up from 35 percent in 2018, according to Code.org. And at least 30 percent of middle schools offer the courses. But only a small percentage of students participate, and enrollment is particularly low for girls.

‘Let’s use those laptops to teach computer science’

Computer science enrollment remains low nationally despite significant pressure from the business community. Five hundred companies told all 50 governors and top state education leaders in a letter last year that they needed to “act urgently” to make sure every K-12 student had access to computer science education. Tech giants such as Amazon, Microsoft and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, were among the signatories, along with household names in other sectors such as American Express, AT&T, Delta Airlines, Nike, Starbucks, and UPS.

The businesses leaders argue that a massive expansion in the use of digital devices fueled by the pandemic should enable more districts to embrace the subject. “ Let’s use those laptops to teach computer science,” the letter said.

But the hurdles to expanding access to computer science are significant, despite exponential growth in 1-to-1 computing programs. Few teachers feel comfortable leading classes, and core subjects like reading and math take priority, especially when resources are limited.

Mineola’s superintendent, Michael Nagler, and his team have maneuvered around those roadblocks in part by infusing design-thinking into courses all students take, bringing coding into subjects like English and social studies, and forging an unusual vendor relationship that gives teachers and students access to computer science experts.

The goal isn’t to turn all of Mineola’s nearly 3,000 students into future Silicon Valley tech startup founders. It’s to help students be creative, search for solutions, and learn from their own setbacks—skills that will ultimately serve them well in school and any career.

Computer science “teaches you how to problem solve very efficiently,” said Grant Adell, a 7th grader. If “something goes wrong in your code, it can be as simple as you forgot to add a line or can be as complex as you just forgot to add a semicolon in the most obscure spot. It teaches you how to see what’s going wrong and how to troubleshoot it correctly.”

‘Every kid can do this’

Even students who don’t share Grant’s enthusiasm for computer science are exposed to the subject at a college level because the district requires all 9th graders to take the introductory AP computer science course.

“We wanted to throw down a gauntlet: Every kid can do this.” Nagler said. “If we’re learning coding, all this time we’re preparing you, you should be able to do it.”

Just over 40 percent of students received a high enough score on the AP test last school year—the first year that students were required to take the class to be able to earn college credits. And 94 percent received a passing grade in the class.

District officials emphasized that students excelled on the portion of the exam in which they had to create their own projects. This school year, teachers revamped the course to put more focus on developing skills that will help students perform better on the AP exam.

Mandating a foundational course is one way to ensure that access to computer science learning is equitable, computer science experts point out.

Teacher Kenneth Coy works with students in the wood shop during a technology 8 class at Mineola High School in Mineola, NY, March 13, 2023.

For instance, students from low-income families comprise 52 percent of students in grades 9-12, but only 36 percent of those in foundational computer science courses. In Mineola, a little more a third of students come from low-income families. Making the AP course compulsory means they get at least some exposure to computer science in high school.

That can be powerful, Speed said. “Even in schools that have pretty diverse student populations, the makeup of the computer science classroom is not representative of the school population,” she said. “Graduation requirements are a huge part” of how schools can effectively introduce female students and Black and Hispanic students to the subject.

Some Mineola students are less enthusiastic than district leaders about a compulsory AP computer science principles class. By a show of hands, a majority of the freshman in one section of the class favored ditching the requirement, when asked by a reporter earlier this year.

Emily Voyer, a freshman, said she’s learning a lot from her teacher, Victoria Berkowitz, who worked as a software developer before going into education. But she’d rather not be in the class. “We’ve grown up with technology now. I think we already know enough,” Emily said. “I just don’t think we should be forced.”

But her classmate, Kaitlyn Consalvo, who is brand new to the district this year and had no background in computer science, is surprised by her own strong performance in the class. She’s considering more advanced computer science courses, an idea she admits never would have occurred to her if she hadn’t been required to enroll in this one.

Nicole Culella, the school’s principal, is betting students who aren’t fans of the course now will feel differently down the road.

These days, computer science literacy is “just as important as literacy,” said Culella, who worked as a biomedical engineering researcher before going into education. Not only is the subject becoming part of nearly every field, but it is also shaping the world around us, she said.

“It’s all about opportunity and exposure, not so much ‘I love coding, or I don’t love coding’—giving them the opportunity to know what coding is, and then making an informed decision,” about whether they would like to go deeper, Culella said.

High school students who want to go deeper can sign up for two other AP computer science classes, join the district’s multiple robotics teams, or take “asynchronous” courses in subjects like Python, a widely used, complex computer language. The high school also offers a class about artificial intelligence, a topic becoming increasingly more relevant with the emergence of technologies like ChatGPT in education. Next year, it plans to add a cybersecurity course. Interested seniors can also do internships with one of the companies that help supply some of Mineola’s technology.

How to help schools teach computer science

Districts have struggled to find educators who understand coding and computer science well enough to give feedback on student projects ranging from basic digital games designed by elementary students all the way up to the sophisticated work of AP students.

Mineola’s solution: Its longtime relationship with kidOYO, a nonprofit vendor, that designed a series of coding programs for pre-K through high school and beyond, with input from the district.

The collaboration started about a decade ago, when Nagler took his then-elementary school aged son to a local library holding a weekend coding session for kids. Impressed by the presentation, he asked the husband-and-wife team behind it if they worked with schools.

Teacher Paul Sommer works with students in the clean room during a technology 8 class at Mineola High School in Mineola, New York, March 13, 2023.

They had tried, but school districts had been reluctant to talk. “Well, you’re talking to one now,” Nagler recalled saying.

Nagler, who favors startups over big tech companies, has tapped into kidOYO’s system to find a broad network of experts who can help his teachers deliver computer science lessons and offer feedback to students, even if they aren’t right in the room.

The power of the platform is that “we have actual humans in our system,” said Melora Loffreto, the founder of kidOYO/OYOclass.com. Her organization has engaged computer science graduate students and undergraduates—mostly from a well-regarded program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook—to critique student work. Those “mentors” make it possible for teachers from all backgrounds to incorporate computer science into their lessons and assignments.

“Kids love that it feels like they have a special somebody, once they figure out we’re not bots,” Loffreto said. “Oftentimes, you’ll have students who progress above the teacher’s immediate comfort level. So who do they go to? They come to our mentors.”

kidOYO trains mentors to offer different feedback to a 3rd grader than an 8th grader, even though it’s possible both students might be doing projects at a similar level.

And the platform incorporates suggestions from Mineola’s teachers and students. For instance, written instructions explaining a recent task were above the reading level of some of the district’s early elementary students. At the request of a librarian, kidOYO is adding a button that will allow younger students to hear the instructions read aloud.

Nagler and his staff “help us take a lot of our ideas and refine them into something that fits better in a school system,” Loffreto said. Since the start of its partnership with Mineola, the company has expanded to about three dozen school districts, most of them on Long Island.

The partnership is “a really interesting way of figuring out how to make teachers more comfortable in teaching computer science by taking that content, expertise, and assessment burden off their back,” Speed said. “I haven’t heard anyone talking about connecting elementary school students to either higher education or industry professionals.”

Students attend a coding class at Mineola Middle School in Mineola, New York, March 13, 2023.

The sustained exposure to computer science from elementary school all the way through high school has fueled a passion for computer science in some Mineola students, pointing the way to future careers.

Junior Nick Yokaitis’ family was initially skeptical of how much time he was spending on the subject, wondering whether the courses would help Nick become anything other than a computer programmer.

“Being here, and it being such a priority, it kind of changed their point of view and made them see, this computer science stuff is actually really cool,” said Nick, a member of the school’s robotics team. He is hoping to be the family’s first college graduate and work in cybersecurity. “It’s a really good career path to follow.”