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Learning Form a Former Student

Each year during CS Ed Week I invite alumni to return to my school to talk about their education and careers with the junior class. I open it up to any alumni who feels that Computer Science and computational thinking is a large part of what they do on a daily basis. I believe it is important to bring people in who aren't necessarily in the software field, but who use computational thinking skills in their work and who realize the value of those skills in what they do.

One of the visitors this year is a young woman who I taught several years ago and who is now a neurobiology doctoral student at MIT. She conveyed the important message that her computing skills are what have enabled her to be an immediate contributor to the labs she works in. As a Ph.D. student, she rotates through labs monthly so there is a small window to make herself helpful and to make herself known. She said that the majority of people with whom she interacts do not have computer science skills and are reluctant to try to develop them to solve a problem. She has quickly become a go-to person because she knows how to code and she is not afraid to try to figure out a new language or piece of software to get the job done. She attributes that to her background in Computer Science, even though she does not consider herself a programmer.

Although she is in the biology field, she talked about how important it is for a scientist today to have the ability to work with and manipulate data. What I found particularly interesting was that she herself never understood the importance of Computer Science to her education and work until now. It was good feedback for me as a teacher to hear that what she learned in high school and in college held no real relevance to her. She was a good student and did well in my course. However, she said the assignments at the time seemed disconnected and if she had been asked to build something to accomplish a real-world task that held meaning to her personally, it would have had a bigger impact on her.

One might question whether maturity and finding her true calling allowed her to finally make the connection, but as a teacher, it makes me think that I need to try to come up with projects that can make a personal connection for students. This young woman had a great message for my students, and a great message for me too.

Karen Lang
CSTA 9-12 Representative


One of the reasons that there is such a proliferation of entry-level computer programming courses in different departments at universities is to get that real-world connection. A biologist may get much more out of a short Python course in which all the problems are relevant tasks for biologists than a 3-times longer sequence of Java that doesn't lead to them being able to do anything that seems important to them.

The same is true outside computer science. I now teach an applied circuits course for bioengineers, with the intent being to get them to be able to do things they saw the point of, like temperature measurement and EKGs.

There is no single "best" intro to a field, and tailoring the intro to the audience makes an enormous difference. Of course, if your class is very diverse in their interests, that tailoring can be very difficult.

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