The buzz in Room 230 on a Friday morning in March is the kind that can be heard when any PC class is working on a group project.
This is AP Computer Science Principles, and 20 students, a mix of 10th, 11th and 12th graders, are hunched over their laptops, either individually or in small teams. They are designing a simple app, an address book that can save and load data from the computing cloud. Teacher Michael Moulton circulates, supervising and giving help when asked, but some of the students are also working with online tutorials that guide them through the lesson.
Moulton has been teaching AP computer science for three years now, but next year is going to be very different. Last November, Amazon announced that Penn Charter is one of 1,000 high schools across the country to receive a grant from the company’s Amazon Future Engineer Pathway program. When it is rolled out this fall, the grant will provide PC with new computer science resources, a new curriculum and new tools for teachers.
It’s a significant change for Penn Charter but perhaps just a hint of even more far-reaching strategic initiatives that could reimagine how schools teach and students learn in the 21st century.
Amazon Future Engineer program gives schools access to the company’s Amazon Web Services (AWS) tools and provides schools access to powerful individualized learning tools from a company called Edhesive. Edhesive’s curriculum enables students to learn at their own pace, both in class and online, as they prepare for the national AP exam. Individual learning units cover topics such as computational thinking, programming, data representation, digital media representation and innovative technologies. Students also receive memberships in another program, AWS Educate, which gives them access to Amazon’s computing cloud, the online servers where data is stored.
Teachers will benefit from tools that help them track student performance in class and in those online exercises. And everyone, students and teachers alike, gets access to high-level Amazon techs who will video conference and visit PC to answer questions about working in the field. They will also have a chance to see computer science principles in practice on a very large scale at Amazon’s 655,000 sq. ft. distribution and fulfillment center in West Deptford, N.J.
“This is a dream,” Moulton said, “because it provides us the ability to get the best from both individual and group learning. With the grant we’ll be able to teach in the same great ways that we aspire to at PC—but with one big difference. In addition to the scheduled classroom experience, we’ll have flexibility to teach at as many different levels as there are students taking the classes.”
The grant Penn Charter received is only one part of the Amazon Future Engineer program, a four-part initiative launched with the goal of teaching more than 10 million children to code. Forget about the economy of tomorrow; those budding young coders are badly needed right now. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that, by next year, there will be 1.4 million computer science-related jobs in this country and only 400,000 computer science graduates. Although computer science is the fastest growing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field, only about 8 percent of STEM majors earn a computer science degree. Widening that pipeline will be a key to ensuring American economic competitiveness in the decades ahead.
NOT JUST FOR “GEEKS”
Penn Charter’s association with computer science goes back to the beginning—in fact, to before the beginning. J. Presper Eckert OPC ’37 helped design the ENIAC and the UNIVAC, two of the first electronic digital computers, in the 1940s and 1950s. By the time Moulton joined the PC faculty in 1998, though, computer science was a one-trimester elective course. In 2016, he advocated for offering AP Computer Science Principles as a full-year class. Interest in the subject had grown, and the new class was introduced to meet the need.
Moulton was attracted to the new AP offering for several reasons. He had been inspired to study computer science as an undergraduate at Drexel University by his professor Jeffrey Popyack. When he learned that Popyack was one of the principal architects of the new AP computer science course, Moulton recalled, “I fell over myself to see what it could do for our students.” At Moulton’s invitation, Popyack even attended one of the early planning meetings to design PC’s class.
The AP computer science course is built to attract girls and students of color into a field where both have historically been underrepresented. That was another thing that resonated with
Moulton, who has tried to encourage greater diversity in the courses he teaches, as well. AP Computer Science Principles is set up so that students with prior coding experience don’t have too much of an advantage and novices aren’t scared off. (Moulton estimated that about three-quarters of the students in this year’s AP class had never coded before. It is also almost evenly divided between boys and girls.)
Studies have shown that girls are interested in computers for what they can do, and so the current curriculum, designed by Code.org, a nonprofit collaborative venture by Amazon, Facebook, Google and several other tech giants, focuses on real-life uses of computer science, such as designing games and apps. It also addresses related issues such as cybersecurity and privacy protection. Course designers, as Moulton put it, took the subject “from just bits and bytes and added ‘why.’”
The AP computer science exam also focuses less on pure theory and more on practice. The familiar fill-in-the-bubble standardized test is now largely replaced by portfolio projects that are sent to the College Board throughout the year. One of Moulton’s students is designing an app that helps with nutritional guidelines and meal planning. Another designed a new computer card game. Throughout the year there are lots of collaborative projects in which students work together, much like in the modern workplace. Moulton believes it will pay off.
“Some are heading into computer science next year in college,” he said. “But all are going into professions that will require them to be savvy about tech.”
Small changes in a way a subject is taught can have a big impact. Studies have shown that students of color are 8-10 times more likely to major in computer science if they have taken an AP computer science course in high school.
With the new curriculum, “we can set students up for success on their AP exams while also giving them real-world access to game design, app development and cybersecurity. To me, the big idea is that PC was recognized for teaching computer science in a way that inspires, prepares and propels students of all backgrounds to pursue computer science education in college.”
Starting next year, PC students who do want to continue their studies can also take a second course, AP Computer Science A, which is geared toward more advanced topics.
EXPLORING FRONTIERS IN EDUCATION
One of the key features of the AP Computer Science curriculum is the ability it offers students to work at their own pace. On this particular morning in March, some students had already finished their address book apps and had moved on to the next unit, while others were still trying to fix some bugs in their software. Moulton teaches the class as any Penn Charter teacher would, but the curriculum includes video components that students can access either in class or remotely, on their own time. This year, sophomore Evie Eisenstein took a portion of the class while she studied in Israel.
All of this is a new way of teaching and learning, and one that may hint at even more significant changes in the Penn Charter educational experience yet to come.
Online learning, at least to some degree, is an educational frontier that the school is just beginning to explore, said Travis Larrabee, PC director of strategic initiatives. He cited a recent report that as many as a third of college students will take at least one online course during their undergraduate years. Today’s teenagers have grown up with the ability to get news and entertainment on their own schedule. Technology may make it possible to get part of their education that way, too.
Larrabee imagined a world in the not-so distant future in which Penn Charter students could learn a subject such as computer science or advanced math at least in part through online coursework. They might “attend” those classes during regular school time, during a free block or even at home. This sort of nontraditional teaching will never replace the Penn Charter experience, but it could enhance it in productive ways.
“One of the things we pride ourselves on, and rightfully so, is the face-to-face contact and the relationships that we have with our students,” Larrabee said. “That is not something that we want to lose. But we need to ask ourselves if accessing online learning is something that we should ask our students to start doing. And what is the best way to introduce them to that?
“Software like Edhesive is never going to replace the strong interpersonal work that we do here. But those things are not mutually exclusive, either.”
“One of the things we pride ourselves on, and rightfully so, is the face-to-face contact and the relationships that we have with our students,” Larrabee said. “That is not something that we want to lose. But we need to ask ourselves if accessing online learning is something that we should ask our students to start doing. And what is the best way to introduce them to that? “Software like Edhesive is never going to replace the strong interpersonal work that we do here. But those things are not mutually exclusive, either.”