December 7, 2020
Introduction to Computer Science
With computer science being such a broad field of study, the Intro to Computer Science course offers students without prior experience a chance to understand the core thinking and fundamentals of computer science before segueing into its more rigorous applications.
The first semester of the course is taught entirely on Snap, a block-based coding language, helping students understand the fundamental thought process of computer scientists without having to worry about the syntax, the written rules of computer languages.
Adapting to the virtual environment, Intro to Computer Science teacher Jeanne Yu now lectures her classes on this content using pre-recorded video lessons and by testing for understanding through hand-written assessments.
“An obvious advantage of having paper assessments is that there’s less cheating, but also coding on paper is an essential skill if a student wants to pursue computer science in the future,” Yu said. “Many job interviews ask you to write code on a whiteboard, which is very different from typing it out because you actually have to think about your steps.”
In previous years, the course was partnered with the Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program, which allowed professionals in the tech industry to volunteer and provide more individualized instruction for students. For instance, if a student was struggling with a concept during the lecture, a TEALS volunteer could always guide them through the material afterward.
Distance learning has made it difficult to partner with the program this year, but that hasn’t stopped many of the TEALS volunteers from virtually returning to help students with coursework on their own time, with no affiliation to the program.
“In the past, the volunteers and the students have developed a connection making students more comfortable when asking for help,” Yu said. “I was worried that that bond wouldn’t carry over given an online format, but as I’m observing throughout this year, the students are getting more comfortable with the volunteers as I don’t need to prompt them anymore to ask the volunteers questions.”
Yu plans to continue pre-recording her lectures and lessons throughout the duration of the pandemic and will continue to improve on her lessons to mirror as much of an in-person experience as possible.
AP Computer Science
On the surface, computer science seems like it would be one of the easiest courses to transfer to an online format because it only requires one tool — a computer. However, AP Computer Science teacher Brent Smith has had to overcome his share of obstacles to ensure the success of his classes, as there’s more to computer science than just access to technology.
Building on the introductory class, AP Computer Science aims to not only properly prepare students for the AP exam but to also explore advanced programming concepts such as working with real data points, which helps students prepare for ADEN, the hardest computer science course offered at LAHS.
Although taking the Intro to Computer Science course isn’t a prerequisite to the AP class, the basic principles of Java covered in the introductory course are included in the AP curriculum to ensure that students have the necessary experience to excel. This addition of material to the original curriculum, however, has increased the pace of the in-person course, leading to the added challenges of compressing the material into two 75-minute sessions a week rather than the former 235 instructional minutes.
“For this class, I can’t just tell students to read the book and expect that everyone will get the material,” Smith said. “There are just so many conceptual things that we have to go over in class, otherwise students may be spending 10 hours working on a problem because we didn’t go over all the examples.”
To deal with this issue, Smith transitioned to an online format by “flipping the classroom,” a concept in which students watch the traditional lecture style videos at home and collaborate or review material in class.
In order to maintain student engagement, Smith has opted for shorter lectures broken up by questions in between videos to ensure that students have retained all the material.
“I’ve been really pleased with the quality of student work,” Smith said. “There are several students who came into the class with less coding experience, but they’ve worked so hard by coming into office hours with the attitude of really wanting to learn. Despite all the challenges, seeing so many students show such a love for learning and initiative to get help has been very encouraging.”
Even after the pandemic, Smith plans to incorporate the library of lecture-style videos he’s created and other virtual resources as supplementary learning materials to augment the in-person learning experience and enrich class time with students.
“Computer science is such a viable career path for many students,” Smith said. “Just because we’re remote, I don’t want any student who’s interested in computer science to be diminished from it at all. I want students to be able to experience the frustrations and magnificence of the subject, even though we’re in the midst of a pandemic.”
While any newly introduced class brings challenges regarding pacing, curriculum and projects, the challenges are especially accentuated this year in the Advanced Data Structures and Embedded Networks (ADEN) course which builds off of the AP Computer Science class as it is harder for instructor Scott Murray to gauge the success of his class through a screen.
“In computer science — even more than math, the importance of being able to walk around and see who’s able to code small things and provide instant feedback is huge,” Murray said. “If someone’s having a problem on their computer screen, it’s hard to deal with that remotely because you can’t share your screen one-on-one.”
Despite the challenges, the transition to an online environment has forced Murray to be more creative with his class such as in finding methods to help students debug their projects without having to share their code with the whole class.
Additionally, the small, tight-knit class of 50 students is determined to make the most of their time, growing closer together over Discord and attending classes ready to tackle new concepts head-on.
“If I had known there was going to be a pandemic, I might’ve delayed this class for a year because it’s challenging especially if you don’t have in-person help,” Murray said. “This year, student feedback is really important because it’ll help me get at least somewhat of a sense of what I should do to improve for next year.”