Rebirth of Computer Science at U Prep

Reprinted from University Prep Happenings, Summer 2013

Dovetailing with the new iPad and laptop program, computer science is making a comeback in U Prep’s curriculum. Computer Science at U Prep was taught as far back as 1985, but in recent years has faltered due to low enrollment and the difficulty of retaining part-time instructors. For the last two years, no courses have been offered in either division, but U Prep administrators have been working to fix this deficit. Academic Dean Richard Kassissieh began by convening a study group last fall to consider how best to teach computer science with the idea of building a program that is attractive to students and  can sustain itself.

The committee, comprised of faculty, students, parents and division directors, met four times, and used Design Thinking to identify user characteristics and the most important qualities of a future program. This process, based on a Stanford Design School model, is centered on human needs and lends itself to creative solutions. It begins by creating an “empathy map” that focuses on the feelings and the needs of the target audience.  The committee interviewed sixty current students, alumni, parents and professional colleagues. Among the interesting findings: there is a perception among students that computer science is boring, and many girls at U Prep do not see themselves as either computer scientists or programmers. The study group concluded that, to overcome these hurdles, it is necessary to reach students early and to give them a taste of computational thinking and programming in Middle School.

Starting next fall, all Middle School students will be exposed to computer science. Computational thinking and programming will be integrated into existing courses, starting with math and science, to build both understanding of and interest in the discipline early. Some teachers are attending workshops this summer and developing study units for next year, and parents in the computer science field will partner with some of our teachers to assist them.  Students will have the opportunity to see how it is used in most disciplines today, and most important, that it is accessible to everyone. “Ultimately, the intent is not only to prepare students for their future, but also to empower them to create rather than just use software,” says Dean Kassissieh.

Next will come the building of a sequence of computer science courses with opportunities for advanced study in Upper School.  Initially, Introduction to Computer Science course is being offered to eighth through twelfth graders. The program will be further developed with the addition of more courses and the strengthening of co-curricular offerings, such as clubs that focus on programming, software development, pre-engineering, and robotics. Based on the large numbers of sign-ups this spring for the fall 2013 class, there seems to be ample student interest.  The hope is to hire a full-time computer science teacher by the fall of 2014.

U Prep has been very fortunate to draw on the amazing resources of its school community in this effort. Multiple U Prep parents have assisted with the effort, serving on the computer science study group, connecting with the UW K-12 computer science outreach group, and even co-teaching the Introduction to Computer Science course this year. We are fortunate to have among our parents software engineers and team leaders from Microsoft and computer science professors from UW.

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