Thursday, August 08, 2013

CS Education Interview: Tammy Pirmann

Tammy Pirmann is my mentor on the CSTA Board of Directors and is helping me understand how and what it is all about. More importantly she teaches at a public high school on the edge of Philadelphia. She agreed to answer a few questions for us about her, her school and her CS program.

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

I teach at a suburban public high school right on the edge of Philadelphia.

How did you get started teaching computer science?

I am a career change teacher, and had a career in the tech industry before deciding to become a teacher. I did some consulting work with a Vo-tech during which I worked with high school students as part of the overall project. I found them to be delightful to work with and eager to learn what I knew. That experience, and the birth of my son, led me to look for a family friendly career that did not include significant travel.
My first position in education was at Eastern Center for Arts and Technology as a Computer Application Support Specialist where I worked with student interns to deliver desktop support and to create and maintain the website. While there, I put together a computer science program but it never took off because so many of the sending districts had some type of computing class.
My program was implemented at a different Vocational school and I accepted the position as teacher. 
The next morning, Springfield's superintendent called me and asked me to be the CS teacher at Springfield. I was not certified to teach CS in a 'regular' high school (certification is different for vocational vs. academic in PA). That day I must have taken about 50 phone calls. I had served on several technology committees in the county and worked with many people in various roles. I had no idea how many of the people I had worked with were from Springfield. The Technology Director, several teachers, the Principal of the high school, parents, etc were calling me to ask me to please accept the  position. Meanwhile, the superintendent secured an emergency teaching certificate for me. At the end of the day, the only reason I had for not taking the position at Springfield was that I had already accepted a teaching position the evening before. I finally accepted the position at Springfield and the other position went to another applicant.

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

Computer Science is a graduation requirement at Springfield, so we have a pretty comprehensive curriculum.
Computer Science Basics meets the CSTA K-12 Standards in level 3a, but at a rather fast pace and without much time to build things. It is really for the humanities student who just needs to meet the graduation requirement.
Computer Science Principles is available for anyone in grades 10-12 and also for any honors level 9th grader (to meet the grad requirement). My focus in this class is on mobile development. We use App Inventor and HTML5 to create mobile apps and sites.
Quest 9: Future Studies is the ninth grade gifted class and is a CS course with robotics and Sci-Fi. It also meets the graduation requirement.
Web Application Development 1 uses xhtml, html5, css and javaScript to create websites. We also learn about how the Internet works, the hardware involved and the social and ethical issues. The students get to create several websites for themselves and for local non-profits. This class meets the graduation requirement.
Web Application Development 2 adds more JavaScript, plus PHP and SQL so the students can build database driven websites.
Game Design is a non-programming course that is focused on what it takes to make a great game. The students create several game prototypes in this course and by the end have a game design document to take to the next class in the sequence.
Electronic Game Development is the second class in the Game Design and Development sequence. In this class we create a digital prototype of the game based on the design document brought forward from the previous class. We use Unity3D for the final, production game. This sequence earns dual enrollment credit with Montgomery County Community College.
STEM 1 is new this year. It is essentially the Quest 9 course without the Sci-Fi. We design and build a robot with the VEX platform, and program the VEX in RobotC. We also have a NAO robot that is programmed in Python and will have a set of Finch robots to program in Python as well. This class meets the graduation requirement.
STEM 2 will be offered in 2014-2015 and will be a survey of three engineering disciplines, chosen by the students in the course.
AP Computer Science A is all about Java, of course! This class is also a dual enrollment credit with MCCC.
Post AP CS A, I have two options for seniors only:
Senior Thesis in Computer Science meets the schools graduation requirement for a capstone course. Each student chooses a topic, writes a research paper, works on a project and makes a presentation. In my course, I connect each student with a mentor in the field of their choice and their presentation has to be published on line. They create a website for this course and publish all relevant materials on it.
Advanced Topics in CS is an independent study  I offer for seniors who have taken everything I have that interests them but they still want to learn more. I  work with them over the summer before school to choose a topic and method for this class. With the advent of MOOCs, we are using them more often for this type of independent course.

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

I believe that students need to work on real projects, so if I had to sum it up in one word, I  would use "authentic". That said, I am a huge fan, advocate and proponent of Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) in CS.

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

It's a small school, so I am always marketing my courses. Also, we've been hit hard by funding shortages, so this upcoming year, I am the only CS teacher at the HS. This means that I will be teaching Quest 9, Web 1, Game Design, STEM 1, CS Principles, and CS Basics, but not AP CS A, Electronic Game Development, Web 2, etc. It isn't a lack of interest on the part of the students, it's the limitations of my time.

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

I'll let you know! We just got a new Principal at the High School, I've only met him once, but I am optimistic. He seems like a great person and willing to look at the big picture. My superintendent has been with us for one year, and she has been supportive of the program. 

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

I love it when a student comes back to me after the course is over and tells me how she used what she learned in my class in real life. Often this is related to the unit I teach to 9th graders about how to buy a computer. I hear back from them, sometimes as late as senior year, to tell me that it was very helpful.
From a data standpoint, I look at how many students request another class in CS (after meeting their requirement). I can't use how many get into an elective because scheduling at a small school is so difficult, but currently the percentage of students who have requested another CS elective is 27%. That's up from about 5% before the CS graduation requirement. I also try to keep track of how many students are heading off to college to major in CS or IT.
More of Tammy Pirmann on the Internet
For a full list of interviews in this series please see CS Educator Interviews: The Index

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