Ninth-grader Ermina Khan decided to enroll in a computer science course at Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts–Harlem because of her interest in STEM, and she learned the unexpected: that coding was everywhere. “Whether it’s watching an ad on TV, playing a video game, or even shopping online, coding exists in our lives so much more than we think,” she said.
Ermina and her classmate, Sunzim Obe, particularly love learning about metadata and CSV files (a comma-separated values file, which allows data to be saved in a table format). “It sounds boring,” Sunzim laughed, “but it’s not. Let’s say you want to see a picture of Yellowstone National Park, so you search for it in Google. For you, the image simply comes up. But so much goes on behind the scenes to even make that happen. We learned how the code reads what a person types in the search box, and how it finds images with an associated CSV, in order to show you the image you’re looking for.”
Emma and Sunzin’s eye-opening experiences are due in part to Jaime Whelan, Lead of Computer Science at Success Academy, who helped orchestrate a partnership with Hello World CS to pilot a new computer science course at SA HSLA-HA last year. “Two thirds of all new STEM jobs are in computing, and students who are exposed to the subject prior to college are more likely to be successful in the field, so providing a high-quality computer science curriculum early on is so important.”
The pilot was successful, and this coming school year, SA will be offering Hello World CS courses in all of our high schools and three of our middle schools, with the goal to expand to all of middle schools in future years. We sat down with Jaime to talk about how this new program differs from the old one, and why the changes matter:
What is the new computer science program, and how is it different from our previous offering?
Our new program with Hello World CS provides a much more hands-on and comprehensive curriculum. It’s a radically different take on learning computer science; their focus is on giving scholars a series of group projects where they can pace themselves and drive their own learning. This is all in service of building well-rounded, practical computer science skills — like learning the coding language Python, for example — that will help serve scholars in the field in college and their careers.
Because it is project-based, students are able to tailor the projects to what they’re actually interested in. That’s why our scholars love it — they get to actually work in the code, instead of just learning about it.
What projects will scholars get to do?
Oh, it’ll be hard to name just a few! Remember reading those “choose your own adventure” books? Last year, scholars created their own “choose your own adventure” video game! They made the entire game from scratch and coded all of the decision points, which is no small feat. They loved it.
They also built a Twitter bot that sent tweets out automatically, and had the chance to develop a “media recommender” — think of the way Netflix suggests TV shows and movies based on your watch history.
One of our middle school courses is entirely based in virtual reality. One project might ask them to build out a Battle of the Bands scenario, where they code the stage, the band, the different instruments, the music, and even the audience! Or they might build a world where they can time travel to various locations — whether that’s prehistoric times, 200 years in the future, or the Great Wall of China — to explore and find hidden items!
How will this program prepare scholars for college and their careers?
These open-ended group projects really push scholars to think critically and problem-solve with their peers. I think it’s incredibly important for scholars to get used to group projects ahead of college, specifically if they want to be in STEM.
Also, because scholars move at their own pace, the program promotes peer leadership. A scholar who has moved on to the next project will help scholars still working on the previous one. In this sense, scholars are learning to leverage each other as resources and collaborate — skills that are essential for college and career.
Lastly, if scholars do want to go on to major in computer science, they’ll leave the program with truly practical skills and knowledge that will set them up for success. The beauty of coding is that there are a million resources available online. But if it’s something you’re passionate about and want to learn, it can be overwhelming to know where to start. This program will give scholars the tools to know where and how to expand their knowledge, and how to continue their education in this industry.
Sabina Bharwani, CEO of Hello World CS, reminds us: “Computer science is more than just a singular field of study or something that’s learned in a vacuum — it’s a mindset. One that’s founded on principles like problem solving, algorithmic thinking, and metacognition. It’s an applied science, a medium through which students can deepen their understanding of other fields of study like the humanities, mathematics, natural sciences, and the arts, which sets students up to be on the cutting-edge of any industry.”
Next year, after mastering elements of coding in the new course, Ermina and Sunzim will advance to learning about Python programming at Georgia Tech, which SA has also partnered with to give STEM Academy scholars the opportunity to learn at the college level during high school! Read more about this program here.