Coding on the Rise in Cambridge Schools

Senior Dina Voevodsky of the CRLS computer science club uses a small computer called Raspberry Pi to experiment with projects such as facial recognition. March 29, 2018 Marissa Wu / BU News Service

By Marissa Wu
BU News Service

This article was originally published in the Cambridge Chronicle.

CAMBRIDGE – Dina Voevodsky, a senior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, has always liked math and problem-solving. After an introductory computer science course her sophomore year, she enrolled in Advanced Placement Computer Science and eventually Harvard’s introductory course, CS50. She also co-founded the school’s computer science club in 2016, wanting to be involved outside the classroom.

“I think it’s empowering to be a girl in computer science,” Voevodsky said, noting people’s reactions when they learn she founded the club. “They’re [more surprised] than they would be … if a boy said that.”

Voevodsky is part of the growing population of students at CRLS signing up for computer science courses. With a steady increase in enrollment over the past five years, courses have been added to meet the need, according to Gina Roughton, assistant director of Educational Technology for the Cambridge Public Schools.

Addressing the gender gap

CRLS offers eight computer science classes, five through the Rindge School of Technical Arts and three through the math department. Enrollment in AP Computer Science has increased from 48 students in 2013-2014 to 112 in 2016-2017. Slowly, female students are on their way to making up 50 percent of the AP Computer Science course, according to Jeff Gaglione, CRLS Dean of Mathematics.

“The numbers for this year, while we’re still not at 50/50 … we’re making strides,” he said. “We’re trying to address the gender gap and we’re also trying to diversify the classes as well. Teachers are aware of those needs.”

There has also been an increase in the enrollment of black and Latino students, though the number currently hovers around 27 percent of total students, according to data provided by Gaglione. The state pegs CRLS’ black and Latino population combined at about 44 percent.

Faculty say they are making an effort to identify and encourage students with proclivities for math and science and shepherd them into the courses, which include AP Computer Science (AP CSA), Intro to Computer Science and AP Computer Science Principles (AP CSP).

Elizabeth Atwood, an AP CSP teacher, wrote in an email the AP board created a course that would have a broader appeal after noticing lack of diversity in AP CSA.

“AP CSA is all Java programming and very math-based,” Atwood wrote. “It keeps to the idea that programming is hard and to some extent that it is only for ‘smart’ people and for ‘boys.’ AP CSP was made to focus more on the creativity, collaboration and direct connection to the real world.”

Doug McGlathery, an AP Computer Science teacher, has been teaching at CRLS since the 1980s. He has witnessed the change in demographics, demand and curriculum, saying class demographics are now reflecting those of the school.

“We began to offer the AP class about four years ago,” McGlathery said. “It was very enthusiastically received. I think I was really impressed at the demand and amount of enrollment.”

Early exposure is key

CRLS has also hosted a computer science fair the past two years, modeled after Harvard’s CS50 fair, giving students a chance to exhibit projects to their peers and spark new interests, according to Gaglione.

Another program, called “Hour of Code,” aims to get students involved before high school.

CRLS faculty have worked with Microsoft’s TEALs program to further promote computer science, while the whole district, from kindergarten to 12th grade, can participate in the annual Hour of Code event and in Computer Science Education Week.

Before students even arrive at CRLS, many have already been familiarized with basic computer science concepts. With early exposure to computer science and its terminology, faculty prepare students creatively and technically using code, while also keeping up with state standards, Roughton said.

“The state just revised the standards a year and a half ago,” she explained. “The new standards are called Digital Literacy and Computer Science. There’s a whole strand of computational thinking down to kindergarten.”

The program gets buy-in from unexpected sources.

One year, Nicole Hart, Instructional Technology Specialist for grades nine through 12, got the English department on board. Teachers assigned their students “Scratch” projects, where they would recreate a scene from the text to show understanding of both character development and computer science.

“Coding is for everyone,” Hart said. “The jobs of the future – there are so many jobs out there that we were just unaware of – but they’re most likely going to involve technology so we’d be doing a disservice if we didn’t offer computer science to our students.”

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