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My Thanksgiving "Vacation"

I just returned from a week in Costa Rica. Unlike many foreign visitors, who land in San Jose to hop in cars and tour buses to get away to the beautiful white sand beaches, active and dormant volcanoes, amazing flora and fauna, and pristine forests, I spent my Thanksgiving week in San Jose, working (along with Wanda Dann, Don Slater and Jacobo Carrasqual) with 60 or so teachers and teacher trainers at the Omar Dengo Foundation running an Alice workshop.

I saw a very different view of San Jose (Costa Rica's capital) than most tourists. During the past week, in San Jose.

  • I saw several thousand motorcyclists blocking the traffic on an enormous circle in front of the restaurant where we went for dinner. They were protesting the high cost of motorcycle registration and insurance.
  • I saw taxi drivers driving ridiculously slowly protesting the limited rates they could charge for fares.
  • I read about (actually, not being able to read Spanish, had Jacobo read to me) the country's anesthesiologists who went on strike wanting more vacation, leading to a stoppage of all but emergency surgeries.
  • I saw the police outside a women's jail (and later read that they were stopping a riot inside)
  • walked on the dangerous crumbling sidewalks, and saw a lack of city planning that allowed residences to be alongside restaurants to be alongside factories, etc.
  • I saw high fences topped with barbed wire on virtually everything.
  • And yet in a capital city and country without much interest in physical infrastructure, and struggling to deal with a myriad of labor and social challenges, I saw a country with a surprisingly long-term view of education, and technology/computing education in particular.

    Foundacion Omar Dengo is a private organization that receives significant government support to strategically plan out the country's technology education future. The foundation has been in operation for nearly 30 years and coordinates computer purchase (both operational as well as academic) for all of the country's schools, offers professional development to all its teachers (often through the use of teacher trainers), and handles the challenges associated with this responsibility. Third graders are exposed to computing using Microworlds, fifth graders receive computing education (and problem solving) using Scratch, seventh graders build off of that in Visual Basic, and the 9th graders continue their experiences with Alice. I was stunned to hear that 33,000 Costa Rican 9th graders learned problem solving with Alice this past year (the academic year in Costa Rica actually ends in late November and their summer and winter breaks are the opposite of ours in the US).

    On the flip side of what I mentioned earlier:

  • I saw the amazing worlds created by four 9th graders using Alice to teach about biology. And two of their four presentations were actually in English! These were students from an award-winning school, from some sort of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) competition.
  • I have been reading the Costa Rican ICT didactics documents (basically the strategic K-12 ICT educational plan, which seems to include a fair bit of discussion in teaching methodologies as well as content) and student learning outcomes document (the focus is on ethics, logical reasoning, creativity, collaboration, and proactivity). It was exciting simply to see the existence of such national standards, as well as seeing the impact of these standards on the four students who were sharing their Alice worlds. After the students gave their presentations and demoed their work, the audience asked the students some rather tough questions. The students huddled together to discuss their answers before replying.
  • I met and befriended the dynamic teachers and teacher-trainers from across the country, and the committed researchers, teachers, administrators, IT staff and planners of the Foundacion Omar Dengo. These folks were extraordinarily kind, and optimistic.
  • I found the excitement of our Alice workshop to rival any workshops I have run in the US. And this was despite the language difficulties. Many of the workshop attendees spoke little English. I spoke no Spanish, and we all went around with these earpieces so the translators could let us communicate.
  • I listened with excitement to the Foundation's plans for outreach to their "Indian" communities. Much as was done with our Native American population, the Costa Rican "Indians" were relocated to inhospitable mountainous regions where they live without electricity or plumbing for example. But the Foundation is piloting programs where they work with the communities to help develop trust and exposing those communities to ICT (cranks and solar power somewhat obviate the need for electricity), though the cultural barriers are enormous.
  • I've returned to the US with a good deal of optimism. If a small and relatively poor (at least compared to the US) country like Costa Rica can have such a national interest in computing and technology education for its young people, it would seem that all the US needs is a slightly modified mindset, a belief that ICT education is important for our youth.

    Pura Vida!

    Steve Cooper
    Chair, CSTA Board of Directors

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