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Student holding a light bulb in a circuit board

High school teachers and students are learning to program side by side, thanks to a collaboration between the Center for STEM Education and STEMed Labs.

Suzette, a Manor New Technology High School freshman, hunches over her tiny breadboard, which is a base for prototyping electronics, and an LED strip. Both are connected to a keyboard, mouse, and monitor. She’s engrossed in her efforts to program circuits and control the small LED.

“If you program the LED to blink 60 times in the span of a minute, the blinks will be too quick for the eye to register,” says the STEMed Lab instructor. “Instead of appearing as a blinking light,” he explains, “it will simply appear dim.”

A student works on a circuit board while another looks on.The students take in this information and continue their work.

The 20 or so high schoolers in the STEMed Labs Pi Bytes class have invested four consecutive Saturday afternoons this semester to learn how to program on the Raspberry Pi platform from a team of engineers and computer scientists. Says Suzette, “I want to learn new things and see what I’m interested in and if I might want to do this as a career.”

The students come from public and private schools in the Austin and surrounding areas. Joining them in their studies are a handful of teachers from the region, each of them scattered about the room observing, taking notes, and asking questions.

The teachers are participating in the workshop thanks to Dr. Carol Fletcher, deputy director of the UT College of Education’s Center for STEM Education. Last year, Fletcher met Ripal Nathuji, co-founder and president of STEMed Labs, the nonprofit that created Pi Bytes. When she heard about the classes, she immediately recognized an ideal professional development opportunity for teachers who were interested in furthering their computer science teaching skills.

According to Fletcher, although teachers who participate in the STEM center’s TeachCS “boot camp” receive computer science training that helps them successfully earn certification in the area, “it is unusual for the teachers to have the chance to work directly with students during their training. Also, the investment we make in a student camp pays out exponentially when you include teachers who can scale up the number of students who can be reached far beyond the camp experience.”

One student helps another at a computerSays Nathuji, “This collaboration is a perfect intersection for creating opportunities for teachers and for our small organization to spread the knowledge and implementation of our program throughout schools.”

James Casselman graduated from the UTeach Natural Sciences program seven years ago after deciding to make a career change from hardware sales and marketing to something he found more meaningful. He now teaches life sciences at Taylor High School, about 35 miles northeast of Austin. “I teach anatomy and physiology and aquatic science, but I try to roll in raw html and Code.org’s one hour of code a week into my classes as well,” he says. Casselman participated in the workshop because he “wanted to learn how to do more. I want to teach my students not to just be consumers of technology, but creators. This is the industry.”

Similarly, Margarita Flores-Sicich, engineering teacher at St. Dominic Savio Catholic High School in Round Rock, wanted to learn more for the benefit of her students. “I’m familiar with some of this because I teach engineering,” she says, “but I’ll have to incorporate Raspberry Pi into my curriculum in two months. It’s really cool to have the chance to see how these experts teach it and to see the problems the students encounter. It will help me be more prepared.”

Flores-Sicich, who was a first-generation college student and worked as a chemical engineer before becoming a teacher, added that she has a passion for science and engineering that she wants to pass on to her students. “I loved science as a young student, but engineering wasn’t even a word that I’d been exposed to. Somehow I discovered the word that led to my career, and now I get to expose my students to this subject.” She says that her school currently offers two years of computer science classes and is aiming for four.

Says Fletcher, “The Center for STEM Education seeks to be the leader for computer science education in Texas and in the nation. Our partnership with STEMed Labs is one way that we provide relevant, real-time education for computer science teachers in Texas.”

To learn more about The Center for STEM Education, visit the center’s website.

-Slideshow by Christina S. Murrey

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