This article is published in the January 2010 issue.

Connecting Teachers with Computer Scientists

Hands-on, discovery-based, lab experiences are known to be an essential part of middle and high school students’ education in all STEM disciplines, including computing. We tend to think of “labs” as test tubes and beakers, ramps and levers, or frogs and bugs, but in reality they can be defined much more broadly. A lab can be any place where students can explore, experiment, test, design, and get their hands dirty and their minds engaged. A lab could be a mountaintop to a geologist, a computer link to a distant particle accelerator to a physicist, a factory floor to an industrial engineer, or a laptop to a software engineer. A lab can be physical or virtual; it can be anywhere that authentic lessons in science, technology, engineering, math, and computer science can be designed to happen.

National Lab Day Logo - Click to go to their site. Opens in a new window.The National Research Council’s 2006 America’s Lab Report concluded that: “The quality of current lab experiences is poor for most students.” That is certainly true of many students’ hands-on experiences of computing, which too often are limited to keyboarding, word processing, and spreadsheets. Some schools do a great job teaching computing, but many more do not. Many of our students are taught computer literacy but not computational thinking, not the fundamentals of computer science. Many of our students never experience the empowerment that comes from being able to adapt and bend computation to their ends; they are users but not creators of technology. Too often they do not understand what they are using, or how it could be used better. As a community, we have the responsibility to change this. National Lab Day gives us the opportunity.

National Lab Day is an unprecedented, national effort to bring more high-quality, hands-on, discovery-based lab experiences to middle and high school students. It is more than just a day. It’s a nationwide movement to support STEM education in our schools. It’s teachers working with community volunteers, and communities rallying around teachers to give kids access to well-equipped labs and to the professional scientists, engineers, and mathematicians who can inspire them. Scientists and engineers in computing are certainly included; we are an integral, though often ignored, part of the STEM community. But we can only be integral to Lab Day if we step up to the plate.

National Lab Day focuses on the needs of participating teachers. Teachers are the experts who best know their students and their classrooms. Whether it’s additional lab equipment, personal mentoring from a scientist, tech support, help with a lesson plan, or just an extra set of hands for a class project, teachers know what they need to improve their students’ hands-on learning experiences, but often they do not know how, or do not have the time, to access the extra support or that needed resource. Teachers will set the Lab Day agenda, organizing and coordinating their own set of local volunteers. They will begin by describing proposed projects on the National Lab Day site. Volunteers will respond with offers of time, expertise, and resources. Later both groups will use the site to find resources, schedule meetings and events, keep track of funds raised, and stay in touch.

Volunteers will engage in activities to strengthen laboratory experiences in their local schools or in outreach to other high-need schools. They might, for example, install software or identify useful web resources, fix or find equipment, implement hands-on projects, start a fundraising effort to buy needed supplies, help with science fairs, tutor a student, chaperone field trips, provide internship opportunities, donate materials, help with lesson plans, or be an advisor for an after-school program. The hope is that for many of these volunteers, this will be just the first step—or the next step—in an ongoing involvement with their local schools and teachers

More than 200 professional organizations—including CRA, ACM, and IEEE-USA—have joined this effort, along with the major teacher organizations—including the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA). It’s not enough, though, to have these endorsements. As individuals in the computing research community, we have the responsibility to get involved, and we have a big incentive: education in computing is in much worse shape than in any of the other STEM disciplines.

Many college-bound high school students do not have the opportunity to take even a single rigorous, academic computer science course. Perhaps as a result, HERI data show that the percentage of incoming college students intending to major in computer science declined again in 2008, to a 25-year low. The CS/10K Project (see: expects to change this in the long term, but there are things that you can do right now using National Lab Day as your entrée.

Find out whether your local high school is participating in Lab Day. If not, encourage them to do so. If they are participating, what do they need? (Make sure that you follow the teachers’ lead!) It could be help with a new computer lab: What should they buy? How can they get it installed? What software do they need? What will they need in terms of tech support? It could be that teachers want help introducing new activities or software. Can you introduce them to CS Unplugged? How about Scratch or Alice? Can you get them started in robotics? Can you help them with cell phone apps? Perhaps the teachers are interested in curriculum redesign. Can you point them to resources and expertise? Can you advise on lesson plans that highlight computational thinking and problem-solving? Can you help with specific activities in your own area of expertise? Can you be on call as they wrestle with new material? Often teachers need experts who can convey the range of application and promise of computing. Can you show their kids what’s new and exciting? Can you help the kids understand the link between computation and their real-world interests? Can you provide an internship or research experience for a student? Can you let them job shadow? Can you help them develop a science fair project?

Don’t limit yourselves to computing classes. Computational thinking is everywhere; it’s in K-8 as well as high school. Science teachers often want help in introducing technology into their classrooms. Help them arrange activities using that technology, but choose activities that build computational thinking skills. Don’t limit yourself to classrooms either. Lots of what gets taught gets taught outside of school. Consider working with providers of informal education as well.

If you are a faculty member, encourage your students to get involved. K-12 service learning experiences teach valuable skills to the college students who participate as well as the students they serve. This can be as simple as having the college students field questions during a lab time. If you work for a company, get your company to encourage and support the participation of its employees.

Don’t consider this to be a one-shot volunteer effort. Consider it to be the beginning of an ongoing relationship between you and your local teacher, school, or organization. As you become more aware of the constraints of the school environment and the teachers become more confident of you as a resource, your partnership will grow and have an increasing impact.

Start now by registering at the National Lab Day website

Jan Cuny (mail2jec at gmail dot com) is Program Director of the National Science Foundation’s Broadening Participation in Computing Program.

Connecting Teachers with Computer Scientists