CS for All brings computational problem-solving to New Mexico

March 18, 2016 - By Kim Delker

Melanie Moses, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at The University of New Mexico, is leading a National Science Foundation-funded project designed to teach both high school teachers and their students the value of computer science and how to use it to solve problems.

New Mexico Computer Science for All trains students and teachers to code and write programs, and they also learn computational thinking, which is a methodology for problem-solving applicable to any science, Moses said.

“The modern economy is built on computer science. Computational skills are increasingly necessary for success in science and technology, but computer science is simply not taught in our high schools,” Moses said. “The class is unique because students learn computational skills in the context of real scientific modeling questions.”

Recently, the potential impact of New Mexico CS for All dramatically increased. Earlier this year, President Obama announced a national $4 billion CS for All initiative to accelerate computer science education in K-12 by training teachers, expanding access to high-quality instructional materials, and building effective partnerships.

New Mexico CS for All was the first such computer science program in the country, and with collaborations with educators across the state, New Mexico can leverage federal funds to accelerate computer science education for students.

And demand is growing for this type of program. A recent edition of the Deming Headlight newspaper featured a column co-written by Elisa Cundiff, a computer science teacher at Las Cruces High School, singing the praises of the national CS for All effort:

“In the face of this challenge, Las Cruces should launch a moonshot effort to achieve 100 percent computer science literacy among graduating high school seniors by 2020. Doing so would position our students to get good jobs and represent a high return investment in the future of our local economy, making our community more attractive for investment and job creation.”

According to recent data, nearly 100 percent of computer science graduates from UNM are employed, with an average starting salary of $70,000. And there is a big gap in the state between available jobs for computer scientists and those qualified to fill those positions, so those with computer science-related skills have an advantage in seeking employment after graduation.

High school teachers first take the CS for All professional development course at UNM, then the next semester, they teach the almost-identical material to their students in their own high school classrooms. So far, 43 New Mexico teachers in 30 schools have been trained. They, in turn, have taught more than 800 students, about 500 of those receiving both high school and UNM credit. The program is growing rapidly as more high school teachers and students enroll in UNM CS for All courses.

UNM Provost Chaouki Abdallah sees the transformative potential of New Mexico CS for All.
“CS for All is an innovative approach to science education, which we so desperately need in New Mexico to serve our diverse students and prepare tomorrow's STEM leaders,” he said.

Michael Steele, a high school math teacher at Nexgen Academy in Albuquerque, has taught a summer section of CS for All at UNM, as well as Computer Science 108 at Nexgen. He said it’s been an enjoyable and valuable experience for him and a great chance to use his UNM computer science degree and follow his passion to teach computer science to the masses. Steele became a math teacher because there were very few computer science teachers in Albuquerque Public Schools when he started out, and therefore few job opportunities.

“The support from UNM helped get this program into high schools, in Albuquerque, and around the state and has enabled me to teach what I've wanted to teach for years,” he said.

Steele said that he’s seen amazing development in his students, too.

“Few of my students had any previous programming experience, but the CS for All course enables them to model complex systems within a few weeks,” he said. “They take fundamental computer science principles and integrate them to model the diffusion of a contaminant through soil, or ecosystem equilibrium, or the spread of a virus epidemic in a population. My students have enjoyed tackling these tangible problems.”

Moses said the emphasis on scientific modeling is unique. The course content was developed by Irene Lee (now at the MIT Media Lab) to build on research conducted at the Santa Fe Institute. The course teaches modeling as a laboratory science, similar to biology or physics, where students design computer programs to answer a specific question.

For example, if there are sharks and minnows in a body of water, how fast will the minnows disappear if the sharks eat at a particular rate? Under what conditions do the sharks and minnows coexist? These kinds of questions can’t be easily studied in a lab, but students can explore and manipulate the system using computer simulations.

“We face complex challenges such as climate change, poverty, and the spread of epidemics in our increasingly interconnected world,” Moses said. “Today’s students need to tools to solve problems in complex and dynamic social, economic, and environmental systems.”

As the program grows, Moses would like to develop collaborative relationships to advance computer science education research at UNM with the College of Education and the Organization, Information and Learning Sciences (OILS) program, both of which train and support teachers. She is also working to integrate CS for All with other science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) outreach organizations on campus, including the STEAM-H program at the UNM Health Sciences Center, the STEM Collaborative Center and the STEM Gateway.

Moses says there is a huge unmet need that makes programs like New Mexico CS for All invaluable.

In 2014, just 57 students in New Mexico completed an AP computer science course, and as a result, students enter into UNM’s computer science program unprepared, not understanding what the discipline entails.

“Computer science is just as fundamental as math, other sciences, and even reading and writing,” she said.

The common misperception about computer science is that it only is for geeks and nerds, ones who like video games and are mostly male. But Moses said the New Mexico CS for All program is showing that girls and members of all under-represented groups have a hidden interest and aptitude for computer science.

“The fact is that 85 percent of U.S. computer science majors are while males, but 70 percent of New Mexico CS for All students are from under-represented groups, including 25 percent of CS for All students who are Native American. The students have done really well, showing that digital divide can be addressed through innovative education programs,” Moses said. “It’s a matter of giving people access and opportunity, and it’s particularly helpful to introduce students to programming and computational thinking before they get to college.”

CS for All empowers students to create in the digital economy, and it provides pathways into science and engineering for students who have been underrepresented in those fields. By drawing from New Mexico’s diverse population, we can transform STEM disciplines that do not reflect the diversity of our country, she said.

“STEM fields have failed to draw from the talent and creativity of all of our students.” New Mexico CS for All aims to change that,” Moses said.

Moses says she envisions expanding the program into schools in all areas of New Mexico.

Moses advocates that computer science should fulfill core requirements for both high school students and UNM undergraduates, and that CS for All be included as a science course in the UNM core requirements.

She sees the CS for All program as a gateway to a brighter future for many students.

“I hope that high school students who take the course will develop greater interest in attending UNM, studying computer science or studying another STEM discipline,” she said.

In fall 2016, all UNM students will have the opportunity to experience CS for All, which will be offered as UNM course Computer Science 108.

“Computer modeling and algorithms are the scientific tools of this century, the way that equations were in the last century and the way that geometry was the foundation of science 500 years ago,” Moses says. “Computer models and algorithms provide powerful new ways to solve problems. By training more students and a more diverse group of students, CS for All has the potential to accelerate scientific and technological progress and innovation.”

High school teachers or administrators who are interested in offering CS for All in their school are invited to contact program organizers. For more information, visit cs4all.cs.unm.edu or email cs4all@cs.unm.edu.