Friday, July 12, 2013

CS Educator Interview: Laura Blankenship

Laura Blankenship teaches at the all-girls Baldwin School.and is also one of my favorite CS education bloggers. In this interview she talks about some of the issues her students bring up about the role of women in computer science. I hope you enjoy reading her story as much as I did.

Where do you teach? What sort of school is it?

I teach at The Baldwin School, an all-girls pre-K - 12 independent school in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

How did you get started teaching computer science?

I have been a teacher since grad school, but I taught English for years.  I had been using tech in my classes since the beginning, making my students learn how to navigate newsgroups and email lists, build web sites and Flash animations, blog and create multimedia essays.  So, I've been on the edge of CS for years.  I worked in campus IT in the Ed Tech field where I did some web development and system administration in addition to the usual ed tech stuff.  I taught a summer program in multimedia development, mostly using Flash, HTML, CSS, and PHP. 
I made the leap to teaching straight-up Computer Science in 2010 when I moved across the street to Baldwin.  I had already been learning some programming besides PHP, so I learned Python and that's what I teach in--mostly--now.

Describe the computer science curriculum at your school. What courses do you have and what are the focuses of each?

We CS from 6-12th grade, though students dabble in 1-5.  6-8 grade I teach a "technology" course that's required.  It meets once or twice a week (depending on grade and week) for 10 weeks.  I start with Scratch, then Jigsaw (a Python-based visual language), then straight Python.  We do games, graphics, art, and other fun activities.
9-12, I offer and Intro Class, then CS II, and now two Advanced classes: Physical Computing and Mobile Computing.

What is your overall teaching philosophy? Project based learning? Flipped classroom? In short, what makes your CS program “your CS program?”

I'm a project-based person.  I also use flipped learning, especially in the 6-8 classes, where I only have 10 weeks.  Basically, I teach a few fundamentals in class, have students practice them in a lab (similar to what you would do in a science class), and then they do a project (with lots of class time to complete) that covers the concepts in more depth.  We work with robots, graphics, games, music, etc. I try to let the students follow what they're interested in.

What is the biggest challenge in teaching CS at your school?

The schedule.  Most students have a packed schedule, taking all their required courses.  Plus there's my schedule.  Teaching in both the middle and high school means there are certain times I can't teach HS courses.  So I have a hard time finding a time slot that meets student needs.

What is administration’s support (or lack of support) like at your school?

I have great support.  My administrators have given me complete control over the curriculum and provide great financial support as well.  They're also really flexible about scheduling courses both for me and my students, so I've been able to accommodate students when necessary.  Next year, for example, I'm offering CS II as a semester course instead of a year because there were 4 students who wanted to take it plus the Physical Computing course and couldn't fit both in if CS II were a year.  It'd be nice to not have to juggle like this, but I'm glad my administration is willing to be flexible.

How do you measure success for your program? For your students?

I would measure success by having all my courses have at least 10 students.  I'm going to have about 9 in my advanced class and around the same in intro.
For my students, if they enjoy the class and learn something, I'm happy.  However, I've had students recognized by NCWIT as well as winning a grant from Google. I also have a senior headed to Purdue to study Computer Science.  Those are all good signs of success as well.  I don't think I've had a huge amount to do with all that. Basically, I'm a cheerleader for them and give them an environment in which to learn and thrive.  Next year, I'll have 5 seniors.  I can't wait to see what they end up doing!

What is the one thing you like to talk about regarding your program that I haven’t already asked?

I love that I only have girls in my classes!  I think they feel safe being around just girls and learning something that they believe is sort of hard and "for guys."  We actually talk a lot about gender issues in my class.  They usually bring it up.  They have questions about why there aren't more women, why the guys they know that like programming are so intense, or why they automatically think girls can't program.  We have lots of interesting conversations. My students are all very different, but they share CS in common and that really bonds them.  I think that's cool.

More about Laura on the Internet

For a full list of interviews in this series please see CS Educator Interviews: The Index

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