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Now that we move past Computer Science Education Week and head towards the new year and impending STEM Fairs, it’s important to remind ourselves why we teach, and what we wish for our students to get out of the sciences– especially Computer Science. 

This year, STEM Fairs will include a Computer Science component, which gave Amy Rosenvall, our district’s CS STEM Specialist, some time to think about Computer Science and its value for students. Amy asked the question, “ Do you have what it takes to become a Computer Scientist?” evaluating what is required for students to become Computer Scientists, what values come from Computer Science, and how Computer Science is a path for growth beyond hard computational skills. Amy wrote a piece on the topic and how teachers implementing Computer Science in their classrooms can use the field to create empathy in students and student projects. You can read her article below.

So, “Do You Have What it Takes to Be a Computer Scientist?” Her answer might surprise you.

This week we are celebrating CS Education. 

Whenever I go into the classroom to support students with STEM fairs, I always start the same way. 

“Tell me, what do you love to do?” 

STEM Fair can be a format for students to share what they love and build on their preexisting knowledge. We are facilitators of our students’ learning. Our job is not to allow assignments to get in the way; instead, we need to enable students to express their understanding in various formats. It is important to me that students have a project that they will truly enjoy and that they find relevant to their world. 

But the piece that takes a project from good to spectacular is empathy. Empathy allows students to see what they love through others’ lenses as they enjoy what they love, too. It pushes the boundaries of a self-satisfaction experiment and turns it into an empathetic and important worldwide project. This concept is what we try to foster when we teach our students Science. 

“What do you love doing? How can you help others experience the same joy you have?”

I have always loved Science, and the majority of STEM Fairs I’ve been involved with were originally just Science Fairs. I added Engineering to my school’s STEM Fair when I started teaching. This year for the STEM Fair, we added Computer Science as a third option for students to try. 

After writing down the three things students love, students come up with problems and solutions that may arise in pursuing their interests. 

“Do you love football, but it makes you tired? What is a solution that would help you be less tired?” 

As I surveyed the room, I saw a common theme. 

“I love computer games, but my parents hate computer games.” 

Admittedly, I am in that same pocket of parents who hate computer games. When I see my kids at home playing Roblox, Minecraft, Animal Crossing, and Bejeweled, I grumble about wasting time. (Honestly, it’s a miracle that I even remember the names of those games.) 

“Hey, Mrs. R?” asked one student. “How can I solve the problem of my parents hating computer games?” 

“What do you enjoy in those games?” I ask.

I want to create my own world, or I want to make my own video game, and I want to improve at a game level that I’m stuck on were a few of the top answers. So, we discussed some of the Computer Science STEM Fair projects they could do. 

“Could you make a computer game that helps someone else?” I asked. 

“Yes,” replied a student, “What if I made a computer game that a blind person could play?” 

As I listened to the results of all their ideas, I realized that my own view of computer games- needs to be adjusted. I can recall the countless hours I spent playing Tetris, and I wonder if those were somewhat wasted hours. My assumption that computer games are just time-wasting black holes needed to change. Tetris allowed me to see patterns and see how things fit together. This ability is a strength in my own personality– every day in my current job, I look for patterns and gaps in instruction and fill them–in a way, I am playing Tetris at work daily. 

The student wanting to make a computer game that a blind person can play is a Computer Science project sustained by empathy.

Then I came across a student who wrote that his favorite thing was Christmas. “But, there’s no problem with Christmas,” he replied. 

“What about people who don’t have a Christmas?” I asked. 

The students’ eyes grew wide with excitement, “Can I create a website to collect presents for others on Christmas as a project?” 

Had you asked me this question a few years ago, I think I would have answered no. But, suddenly, I realized something I hadn’t before–Computer Science opens doors for empathy.   

For the past several months, I have been supporting Computer Science Education. During instruction, I have gained many vocabulary terms; the most recent term that fits here is algorithm. Algorithms are a series of steps to complete a task. We use algorithms in everyday life. We use algorithms to make recipes, algorithms to wake up in the morning, and algorithms to do homework. But all those algorithms lead to a result of helping someone– which brings me back to empathy. Helping someone re-create a recipe– empathy. Helping someone get ready for their day–empathy. 

Can giving presents to others during Christmas time be a STEM fair project? Yes, a Computer Science project in which the student creates an algorithm sustained by empathy. Whether the student creates an algorithm to pick up presents and deliver them or the students develop a series of steps for a child to make a craft–- both are valid STEM fair Computer Science projects.

Provo City School District
  • Provo City School District