Eighth grade students at Henley Middle School can now participate in an after-school programming club taught by computer scientist Krishan Leong. Exposing students to computer programming early helps them figure out if they are interested in pursuing the field. It also gives them a head start learning skills that will help them succeed in college or in the work force. For many of these students though, this club is just pure fun; they aren’t thinking about their futures.
“Kids are drawn to the computer. My kids are always talking about different apps and they want to learn how to make them,” says Gineane Stalfort, a Henley parent and PATSO president. She was discouraged when she first looked into programming classes for her oldest son. The classes offered at Henley teach students how to use computers, but not how to program them. So she was elated when Krishan Leong contacted her about opportunities to promote computer science at Henley. Together, they came up with the idea to start an after-school club.
Leong is not new to Albemarle Public Schools. He taught Computer Science, including the AP class, at Albemarle High School for three years from 2003 to 2006. He left Albemarle for a seven-year career in the private sector and is now interested in returning to education. His experience underscores a common problem for high schools around the country. With the high demand for programmers in the private sector, it’s hard for schools to compete for talent. Yet a computer scientist is a necessary component of a comprehensive program that aims to teach students at a deep level. Leong is currently finishing a long-term substitute assignment at Western Albemarle High School, where his advanced students have already built a fully functional Tetris game.
But recruiting students to take computer science classes might be an uphill battle. Computer science classes are often difficult to fit into student schedules because of the increased standards for core subjects like math, science and language arts and because of fewer elective periods. In addition, students often avoid taking challenging elective classes because they don’t want to jeopardize their grade point averages.
According to Computing to the Core, an advocacy group for K-12 education, computer science should be considered a core subject. Its importance in our education system would then align with its importance in our job market, where the projected number of computing jobs in the next ten years will be double that of all other STEM jobs combined.
Leong envisions a strong computer science program for high schools, one that offers a level-two introductory class as well as an advanced placement class that could earn students college credit. In addition, he hopes to lead teams to national competitions in areas of programming, game development and cyber security. “Computer Science is such a great field: there are so many practical, fun applications that the kids can work on,” says Leong.
The Henley club has already met for two weeks at the Western computer lab. For their first class, students created a Mad-Lib game that collected user inputs and spit them out into funny sentences. The students are fully engaged, doing what they love, and their parents are hopeful for more programming opportunities for their children at Western.