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Virtual Computer Science Academy Fills Gap In Coding Education For High Schoolers

Carnegie Mellon University
A screenshot of an exercise of Computer Science Academy, a Carnegie Mellon University program that teaches kids in early high school how to code and program.

Learning coding in schools has become more commonplace, but as kids get older, teaching more complex topics can pose a challenge. Not all teachers have computer science backgrounds, and there are no statewide requirements for what a programming curriculum should look like. 

Carnegie Mellon University's Erin Cawley said there are a lot of good resources for teaching kids in the K-8 level how to code.

"But that kind of drops off once they get to a point where it needs to be a little more challenging," Cawley said.

Cawley and a team of CMU educators and students have developed the Computer Science Academy to bridge the gap between early coding education and advanced courses later in high school. Cawley is CS Academy's Program Manager.

CS Academy is written for ninth-graders or any other students who have mastered middle school math. Students first learn how to use code to create different shapes, then they use those shapes to create an image.

"And by gaining those skills, they're very quickly able to create things like an owl or a flag," Cawley said.

For most of the exercises in the program, students are given some starter code and an image of what they're trying to create. Students can check their work as they go, either by sight or with built-in tools that help guide them to the right solution. The program can also evaluate the work of students, taking some pressure off the teacher who might not have a coding background.

The CS Academy team has tested their program in 40 schools, most of them in the Pittsburgh area. Developing it has been a learning process; co-director David Kosbie said his team has come to understand that the modern ninth-grader consumes content differently than high school freshman of five or 10 years ago.

"They certainly will not sit and read several pages of text, they just won't do it," Kosbie said. This realization led the team to forgo some text instructions in favor of more interactive teaching methods.

"And these are lessons that we're learning as we're going, and I think part of our successes are born from these lessons," Kosbie said.

CS Academy is available to educators at no cost.