Teachers Display Skills Learned During Computer Science Training

Six-Week Summer Course designed to energize Hartford-Area Students

Noting that Hartford has a long and proud history of innovation, Mayor Pedro Segarra called Thursday's display of newly acquired computer science skills by high schools teachers "a game changer."

Segarra, who sat through the 90-minute presentation as 10 high school teachers demonstrated what they had learned during the federally funded six-week course, said the knowledge gained by the teachers had the potential to challenge students and help "lift cities such as Hartford."

"I am really impressed. It's incredible how much energy we can harness from this," said the mayor, who was invited to the event by Trinity Computer Science Professor Ralph Morelli, the recipient of a $902,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to train as many as 30 teachers who will introduce advanced computer science principles in their respective schools. Morelli's co-investigator on the grant is Chinma Uche, president of the Connecticut chapter of the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), who was also in attendance.

The first group of 10 teachers - nine from Greater Hartford and one from Milford - took the course this summer and will be introducing the skills they learned during the 2013-14 academic year.

The course is part of a three-year Mobile Computer Science Principles (CSP) Project designed to train Connecticut high school teachers so that their students can learn AP-level computer science. Nationally, the goal of the program is to train 10,000 qualified K-12 teachers. Additional details about the effort in Connecticut can be found at www.mobile-csp.org.

But what distinguishes the Mobile CSP project from other programs around the country is its focus on mobile technology (smart phones and portable tablets) to teach computer science. As a result, students will learn computing by building mobile apps that serve their communities. Another goal is to reach minority students, females and others who have been traditionally underrepresented in the computer science field.

Uche pointed out that nine out of 10 high schools don't even teach computer science, yet students will need those skills to compete not just on a national level, but in the international arena. She noted that by 2020, there will be 1.4 computing jobs but only 400,000 computer science students, thereby necessitating that more be done to pique the interest and curiosity of students. Morelli agreed, saying there is a "huge gap" between the demand for computer scientists and the "number of students in the pipeline."

Morelli's NSF grant - a collaboration between Trinity, the Hartford Public School System and the CSTA - marks the beginning of an effort to close that gap and, as Segarra put it, "excite and energize" the current generation of high school students.

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During Thursday's season-ending presentation, the 10 teachers were paired off, as each twosome demonstrated a project that was completed during the summer under the tutelage of Morelli. Remarkably, only two of the 10 teachers work in the field of computer science, with the other eight having backgrounds in such diverse areas as graphic design, history and technology education. Nonetheless, Morelli credited all of them with being "hard working, creative and dedicated."

Raul Vargas of the Pathways Academy of Technology and Design in Windsor and Michael McCausland of the Academy of Engineering and Green Technology in Hartford demonstrated a mobile phone application called "Hartford Snap Back," which enables citizens to report an unsightly or dangerous situation (e.g., graffiti, litter or potholes), to city officials who can use a companion app, "Hartford Snap To," to get directions to the site and report when the situation has been remedied.

Vargas was so excited by his summer experience that he exclaimed: "I can't wait for school to begin. I really think career paths will change after this course." McCausland said he was intimidated by the course at first, but praised Morelli, Uche and Pauline Lake, a recent Trinity graduate who is assisting with the program, with making him feel at ease. "They turned me into a computer science teacher. I wouldn't have believed it," he said.

Aaron Czarnecki of Joseph A. Foran High School in Milford and Jamie Verab of the Journalism and Media Academy in Hartford walked the audience through a sample "Student Portfolio," which demonstrated the kinds of writing and reflection that students will be asked to do in connection with their creative app-building projects.

And James Veseskis of the Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy in Hartford and Tylon Davis of CREC's Two Rivers Magnet High School in East Hartford showed the audience a simple mobile app called "Hello Daddy." When a user clicks on a picture of Veseskis's children, he or she can hear the children saying, "I love you daddy." The fact that the teachers were able to develop the app in five minutes demonstrated the accessibility of the App Inventor, the visual programming language that is used in the course.

In the "Error Checking Lesson," Julie Lemke of CREC's Academy of Aerospace and Engineering in Hartford and Seymour de Oliveira of Great Path Academy at Manchester Community College demonstrated a simple lesson about how binary numbers can be used to detect simple errors in a stream of data. An audience volunteer was asked to arrange a 5-by-5 square of red and yellow blocks. De Oliveira then added a 6th row that contained the error checking bits. He then left the room and the audience member flipped one of the bits from red to yellow. When De Oliveira returned, he was able to identify the bit that was flipped. Lemke explained that this is the same basic technique that is used in "parity checking."

The final pair, Elizabeth Dillard of Tolland High School and Joseph Kess of Wethersfield High School, demonstrated an app called "Ralph's Raffle," which they used to raffle off several door prizes. Audience members entered the raffle by texting "CSP" to Dillard's phone. She then clicked a button on the app and it randomly picked several of the phone numbers and sent the winners a "Congratulations, you win!" message. As Kess explained, when he showed this app to his students, they were blown away by how simple it was to create such a useful tool.

Overall, College officials and the participants described the program as a resounding success.

"Seeing the collaboration between the College and Hartford area schools is one of the best things that I could ever envision," said Thomas Mitzel, dean of the faculty at Trinity.

The three-year program builds on Trinity's Humanitarian Free and Open Source Software (HFOSS) initiative, which, since 2007, has been engaging undergraduate students at Trinity and other schools in building free software for socially beneficial applications.


Photos by John Atashian.