“Flavor of the Week Syndrome”: One more way to hold back progress in STEM career preparation

The author of this guest post, Adam LaMee, is the Teacher-in-Residence for the University of Central Florida’s PhysTEC physics teacher preparation program.  Last week, Adam made a presentation at the Spring Meeting of the Florida Association of Science Supervisors titled “Coding in K-12 Science”.  The presentation may not have been what the audience expected from the title, and after hearing about the talk from a member of the audience I asked Adam to write about his presentation for posting here.

As a high school physics teacher, Adam deserves a great deal of credit for the steep rise in high school physics enrollments at Leon County’s Rickards High School and throughout the county that took place from 2013 to 2015.  His departure in 2015 is one of the reasons district physics enrollments have dropped in the last two years as quickly as they rose in the two years before that.  That’s the impact great teacher-leaders have.  

Adam claims to be one of the two regular readers of this blog.  The identity of the other remains a mystery.

There are plenty of challenges in the science education biz. One of the most salient is “flavor of the week” syndrome. You’ve probably heard of them over the years: robotics, reading in the content area, writing in the content area, engineering, academies, industry certification. This latest is “coding.” These are all great ideas, but our failing is to singularly invest in the flavor of the week at the expense of the what we already know is important. So our challenge is twofold — how to incorporate coding into grade school science while continuing to reinforce the core principles of inquiry, rigor, and student-centered learning for every student.

The other regular reader of this blog may not be aware that I spoke last week at the Florida Association of Science Supervisors semi-annual conference. It’s a friendlier and more entertaining event than its title might suggest. Most of Florida’s 67 school districts were represented and each attendee has been feeling increased pressure to “do coding” in their district. What does that mean? They and everyone else are trying to figure that out. I’ve been working with teachers in Seminole County on what we think that might look like. And I think we’re on to something.

I taught Physics for 10 years in Tallahassee after graduating from FSU Physics Department, hence my contact with Paul. I’m now the Teacher-in-Residence in the UCF Physics Department. It’s a unique position (there are two of us in the State) that’s tasked with creating high school Physics teachers from STEM undergraduates. One of the go-to techniques for recruiting future teachers is to put them in the same room with practicing teachers and let them learn from each other. About two dozen UCF undergrads developed computer programs over the past year that each do something simple, but useful. They grab cool data from the web and make a plot of it. Middle school science teachers in Seminole County then take those programs and turn them into classroom lessons. The main theme is that computer programs are useful tools in science. Students are prompted to change some small part of a line of code that’s pretty obvious and make the program do something a little different, like change the graph’s title or axis range. It’s like reading a paragraph about dolphins and changing it to be about porpoises … or cuttlefish, by replacing a few words. That wouldn’t help you learn Spanish or Latin, but that’s exactly how you start learning Python or Java. Learning to program is so vastly different from learning a foreign language, the word “language” is about the only similarity (legislators, I’m speaking to you).

We aren’t teaching kids to code from scratch. Codecademy already does a great job of that for free and schools looking to start their own coding elective should begin and end their search there. You see, teachers already feel the academic year is stretched awfully thin by mandated testing, pre-testing, post-testing, interim assessments, and end-of-year exams. If we want students to learn about computer science, one thing we can’t do is ask teachers to add extra activities to their year plan. That’s exactly what we did with so many other flavors of the week and why so few persisted after the initial surge of interest. We also can’t ask teachers to teach computer programming that they don’t know (hint: 99% don’t know any programming). What we can do is offer them an accessible way to introduce their students to coding in a way that also allows them to teach the topics they already have planned.

A bonus is that we don’t need to ask students to sacrifice another course to learn about computer science. That “flavor of the week” thing? The absolutely most critical thing by far for every student with plans of trade school or college is to take Chemistry, Physics, and pre-Calculus in high school. Every student. The future welders, history majors, engineers, and computer scientists. All of them. And Florida isn’t great about making that happen (see nearly every other post on this blog). Students also need to study a foreign language. Adding a computer science course is a zero-sum game. To take it, a student won’t take some other class and there’s way less room in a high schooler’s schedule than when you, the reader, was in school. Integrating it into existing Science courses (or Math or English, for that matter) lets us add a new piece of career preparation while respecting what we already know students need out of their K-12 experience. My gloomy prediction is we’ll soon see high schools create “Computer Science Academies” which don’t require foreign language, Chemistry, Physics, and pre-Calculus. I couldn’t imagine a less well-prepared graduate for the CS industry, but I’m often wrong. Hopefully this is one of those times.

If you’re interested in trying out some of these coding activities for yourself or viewing my presentation slides, go to CODINGinK12.org.

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One Response to “Flavor of the Week Syndrome”: One more way to hold back progress in STEM career preparation

  1. Pingback: Teacher and principal bonuses in HB 7069: Here’s the bill language, in all of its gory detailed glory | Bridge to Tomorrow

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