A computer science classroom project without a name

CS Education    2013-09-17

A little over a month ago now, just as the new school year was about to begin, I had the privilege of attending a meeting of the local chapter of Computer Science Teachers Association here in Austin. I didn't really have any plans - my goal was just to get to know some of these local teachers and see if there was a way that I could help. Help how? I had no idea.

But as we got to talking, it became clear that what would be most welcome - at least for now - would be to get developers into the classrooms, to have them talk to students about their careers and maybe get involved directly, through mentoring and teaching.

And so the gears in my head started turning.

Last year, I volunteered with a local program called Central Texas Discover Engineering. It's a terrific way to reach out to schools and promote STEM: Through CTDE, science professionals can sign up, get paired with an elementary school teacher/classroom, and make plans for a school visit. This past spring, a few of us from PyLadies went to visit a 5th grade class in south Austin to give a talk about how we use programming in our jobs. The kids were so curious and enthusiastic - imagine how receptive a classroom of aspiring programmers would have been?

CTDE has more of a general science focus, but I wanted to adopt their model, so instead I'm working on building a roster of developers that are available specifically for visiting with Computer Science students in middle and high schools. The way I'm envisioning it, these classroom visits could just mean talking to students about what software development careers are like and what kinds of things you need to learn to get there. They might also involve some teaching, one-on-one mentoring, or extras such as helping to run an after-school computer club, if we find developer volunteers who are interested in doing those things.

And now I'm in a little bit over my head, but loving every minute of it. This is the first time I've ever attempted to put together a program like this. So far, we've gotten a huge response from the handful of user groups we've reached out to. Austin's developer community gets it - they're lining up to get into the classrooms and help kids. It's been a little slower getting the word out to teachers, but that is starting to take off as well. My hope is that signups on both sides will continue, so that Austin developers are continuing to work with area educators throughout the school year.

As teachers and developers have signed on, I've generated welcome emails, but the first letters matching volunteers to school just went out today. Volunteers are being asked to contact the teachers, but both sides are getting information about each other: teachers learn about the specialties and expertise of the volunteers they've been matched with, and volunteers get a little information about the classes they expect to be visiting - how big the classes are, what age group, what languages they're working with. It's up to the teacher and volunteer to negotiate what the content of the classroom visit will be. We're suggesting things like career talks, coding demonstrations, and mentoring, but these visits are really open to whatever the teacher and developer agree on.

In the meantime, I'm hoping to focus on getting a web site together - right now, this whole project consists of a couple of Google Drive forms and a spreadsheet. Oh, and a couple of scripts to generate the emails.

My plan is to harness the brain power of our local PyLadies chapter and put together a team to help with a web site. We just need a handful of features - separate signups for teachers and developers, a page of presentation ideas and activity resources that developers can use when planning their visits, some automation for the teacher/volunteer matching, and automation for the assortment of emails that have to be sent.

There is one thing holding us back - the project does not have a name. So if you know how to reach me and you have an idea, please let me know.

I'm really looking forward to seeing what an impact this program makes on local computer science classrooms this year. We're keeping it simple for 2013-2014, but if it's a success, we might expand and do some different things for the next school year.

Once the first classroom visits begin, I'll update on how well it's all working out.