Teacher increases equity in computer science

Dec. 26, 2019 — At Siuslaw High School, Edward Mielke teaches a new class called Exploring Computer Science (ECS). It’s designed to help increase equity and create opportunities for students who may have had no prior exposure to computers.

“Students have looked at real-world problems, like how to make cornrows, fast vs. slow ways of searching and sorting, and finally, efficient road-construction. It was upon this last lesson, “Muddy City,” that a student, Will, commented that this was the ‘funnest class in school.’ Of course, I thought this was because I had just handed out Skittles candies to help them keep track of their road construction,” Mielke said. “It was the same student, however, that first made a connection that when the real-world problems become numbers, we can then use binary code to represent the problem itself.”

In Muddy City, the visual problem-solving exercise, students used Skittles as moving pieces to solve a sophisticated yet fun algorithm puzzle to figure out the least number of paving stones to connect every house in the muddy city; it’s an example of how ECS teaches a classic computer science algorithm that is used in network routing protocols. In lessons like these, students are laying the groundwork for more complex computer-coding concepts they will learn in later lessons, such as creating algorithms, learning CSS and HTML (the computer language used to create the layout and appearance of websites), and creating a website from scratch without templates.

ECS uses many scaffolding techniques to even out the playing field, helping students without prior knowledge gain the computer fundamentals they need in a fun, relatable way.

One of Mielke’s ECS students, Josh, said, “I’ve been learning HTML and website development. I feel like this could be a way into a career in coding and website development.”

 “I was thinking this class was all Scratch, block-coding and stuff, but learning HTML was unexpected and fun to learn,” agreed Hayden, another student.

 Mielke is part of a network of school districts across the state participating in Computer Science (CS) for Oregon, a joint university project between Portland State University, the University of Oregon, and more recently, Oregon State University, Cascades.

CS for Oregon is committed to broadening participation in computer science by providing a welcoming and inclusive environment that is equitable, rigorous and engaging. These learning experiences are designed for all high school students across Oregon’s rural and urban areas, preparing them to participate actively in our digital world and economy.

“Computer science is now essential knowledge to participate fully in society, and yet participation in Advanced Placement CS shows this subject is the most segregated discipline by race and gender of all AP subjects in Oregon,” said James Hook, CS for Oregon co-leader and Associate Dean of the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science at Portland State University. “We have been teaching computer science in high school in Oregon for over 50 years, but more through the lens of enrichment for some, rather than essential knowledge for all. ECS brings best practices in inclusive pedagogy and teacher professional development to the CS classroom. It has been systematically evaluated and improved using evidence-based techniques. I am excited to help bring this to Oregon.”


Using a $1 million National Science Foundation grant award, CS for Oregon trained its first group of ECS teachers in 2018, a curriculum co-developed by Dr. Joanna Goode, CS for Oregon lead researcher and professor at U of O. Partnering with 16 of Oregon’s school districts in 2018, the program will expand in 2019.

“Florence, Ore., is a traditional logging and fishing community, but in tradition only. For many of our students, their families still hold on to this tradition as a mode for life. It is this rural mindset that may hold many of our kids from realizing other potential, even in our rural setting,” said Mielke. “What our ECS class offers is an exposure to opportunities and awareness to computer science as a part of our lives everywhere for everyone. Of course, computer science has inundated [students’] lives, their parents’ lives, their grandparents’ lives, and so on. The opportunities are there; the internet makes this possible. ECS makes it possible to show through inquiry, the relevance of computer science to their lives.”

His students seem to agree.

When asked if he would recommend the course to others, student Josh said, “I would definitely recommend it 12,000 percent. I see the world progressing into a tech world and it’s important I learn this or get left behind [when the robots take over].”

CS for Oregon offers professional development stipends for teachers, certified in any subject area, to teach ECS with an equity lens. If your school or district is interested in becoming a grant partner, contact CS for Oregon through [email protected].