Collaboration brings computer science curriculum to local public high schools

8/24/2016 12:31:07 PM lschmitt

CS Professor Lenny Pitt provides computer science curriculum and teacher professional development opportunities for Champaign's high schools.

Written by lschmitt

They follow his lead, dragging and dropping a block of code into their viewers. After making the latest update, everyone in the room begins to shake their Google Nexus tablets, which are connected via USB to their computers. The code they added now allows the tablets to make a sloshing sound when shaken.

They’re creating Magic 8 Ball apps, modeled after the old fashioned dime store fortune teller—ask a question, shake the ball, and learn your fate. The tablets are now delivering various answers to the students’ questions in a robotic voice; “yes,” “no,” “failure is imminent,” can be heard echoing around the room.

Kasinda Williams is one of the many high school students benefitting from the new computer science curriculum that CS Professor Lenny Pitt helped craft.
Kasinda Williams is one of the many high school students benefitting from the new computer science curriculum that CS Professor Lenny Pitt helped craft.
These are not Silicon Valley app developers incubating a new startup; they’re Champaign Unit 4 high school students. The class is Mr. Linnenburger’s 7th hour Applied Computing Class at Centennial High School and today he is guiding them through this lesson as part of the course’s app development unit.

The course was added two years ago as part of a District-wide effort to vastly expand computer science offerings in grades K-12. Centennial High School Freshman Kasinda Williams is taking advantage of the new courses and the opportunity to explore the tech sector as a possible career path.

“I have taken the class before this one and we were doing Javascript. It was really fun from last semester, so I wanted to do it again,” she said. “I don’t have a career plan, so I was looking into different ones. I really like it, so I might go into technology. I want [the community] to know these classes are being offered and you’re not going to be nerdy for taking them.”

Two years ago Linnenburger was drafted by Superintendent Dr. Judy Wiegand and Deputy Superintendent Dr. Laura Taylor to help lead the District’s expansion of computer science at the high school level and offer this path to students, in part due to his passion for computer science dating back to the 1990s. As a result of this work, Unit 4 high schools now offer a Computer Science course of study (plus networking courses) to students in grades 9-12 that includes seven courses, with a second Advanced Placement course coming next school year.

Unit 4’s Central and Centennial High Schools are now two of only 12% of high schools that offer Advanced Placement Computer Science, which allows students with passing scores to earn college credit.

Champaign high school students program their own app.
Champaign high school students program their own app.
The curriculum, aligned to real world applications of technology, was developed in partnership with Dr. Leonard Pitt, with the University Of Illinois Department Of Computer Science. Dr. Taylor and Dr. Pitt designed the professional development opportunities that would equip Linnenburger, and others in the future, to teach the courses offered.

“Business, science, and even social science practice today increasingly requires an ability to work with data intelligently and a broader understanding of computation,” said Dr. Leonard Pitt, Associate Head and Director of Undergraduate Programs in the Computer Science Department at the University of Illinois. “Preparing our students with these skills has become critical. I’ve been excited about the opportunity to work with Champaign Unit 4 on teacher professional development and computer science curricula, and am delighted to see the progress that has been achieved over the past few years.”

Professor Lenny Pitt
Professor Lenny Pitt
Other partners at the table include the University of Illinois College of Education and Math Science Technology Education (MSTE) Office, Wolfram Research, and community group Ctrl+Shift. These partners are also helping the District hone in on the development of CS curriculum at the middle and elementary school levels as well. One of the most exciting projects underway is taking place at Kenwood Elementary School, the District’s computer science-focused elementary school. In 2013, Kenwood adopted computer science/computational thinking as a school-wide initiative.

In order to implement the curriculum, Unit 4 partnered with University of Illinois partners to provide extensive professional development for teachers. Now, Kenwood teachers are working with the University of Illinois College of Education to develop a model K-12 computer science (CS) and computational thinking (CT) curriculum.

This work is part of the National Science Foundation STEM+C initiative with the University of Chicago. At the middle school level, students are able to learn about coding through STEM courses offered at each campus. As part of the course, STEM specialists invite working professionals from Champaign-based tech company Wolfram Research to lead lessons and provide students exposure to the Wolfram programming language.

“We know that we need to prepare our students for jobs that don’t exist yet. In order to rise to that challenge, our students will need to develop strong computational thinking skills,” said Superintendent Dr. Judy Wiegand. “We are moving toward access to computer science and coding at all grade levels, at all schools.”

Article originally published by Champaign Unit 4 Schools. Republished with permission. Article by: Stephanie Stuart, Champaign Unit 4 Schools

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This story was published August 24, 2016.