Tuesday, October 31, 2017

CS Educator Interview: Raji Gupta

Professional Development days are often a great opportunity to meet other teachers and share idea. Even though I pass his school twice a day on my way to my school I just met Raji Gupta recently at a CS4NH event. I was very interested in his school’s growing program and one course in particular - Edge of Computing . You’ll read about that below. And see a picture of his creative classroom!

Where do you teach? What sort of school is it?
I teach at Windham High School, in Windham, NH.  We are a public high school just north of the border with Massachusetts.  The school has just over 900 students.

How did you get started teaching computer science?
I am only in my third year teaching in total.  During my first year as a teacher, I was teaching math (not in Windham).  My friend/mentor reached out to me and asked if I would consider coming to Windham to grow a CS program.  Having no CS background I was at first hesitant, but as we talked through it, I came to the conclusion that our kids need someone to step up and figure it out.  And so here I am in my second year as a computer science teacher.

Prior to teaching I had a career in industry, but felt called to make a difference, and teaching was the right channel for me to move into.

Describe the computer science curriculum at your school. What courses do you have and what are the focuses of each?
WHS offered an object-oriented programming class for a few years, and then last year added AP CS A.  We had 44 students enrolled in AP CS A in its first year.  This year we dropped the OOP class and now offer: AP CS A, AP CS Principles, App Development, and Edge of Computing.  My overarching theme for all of my courses is that students are growing their problem solving, communication, and collaboration skills.  Obviously with the AP courses, I am trying to also help the students achieve a strong AP score.  I, frankly, think my role is less about instilling technical skills with my students and more helping them engage with CS and play with different environments and discover what they like.  So I don't offer introductory Java, or teach Javascript or Python, for example... yet. 

When we talked in person recently you told me about a new course you were piloting this year. Can you elaborate on it? What’s it about and what was your motivation for creating it?
Edge of Computing is a class that I sort of dreamt up.  I wanted students who had taken AP CS A to have a chance to explore really cool topics in technology.  We started the year by looking at Artificial Intelligence, for example.  The process wasn't about learning the technical aspects about AI, but rather to examine the social implications of this emerging technology.  Students ended up researching AI in ways I hadn't even thought of.  I learned so much from them.

Throughout the year we'll look at self-driving cars, quantum computing, Watson, virtual and augmented reality, etc.  I like to think that my class is like a form of recess.

My hope is that as the year finishes students will have dug into topics that they are curious about anyhow, and will be impassioned to really delve into that field during their undergraduate studies.  

What is your overall teaching philosophy? Project based learning? Flipped classroom? In short, what makes your CS program “your CS program?”
As I said earlier, I am not technical.  My prior career was in operations leadership.  I understand technology, and am trying to become proficient in Java, but I think what differentiates my classes is that I create an environment where kids want to learn, that they can use self-discovery, and partner-work to grow their skills and knowledge.  I am perfectly okay knowing less than my students.  I am experienced enough in life that I can ask them questions when they are stuck that helps them solve their own problems.  I think them growing this capability is really important.  My role is mentor, rather than teacher.

What is the biggest challenge in teaching CS at your school?
Capacity!  We had almost 200 students sign up for CS this year... as an elective!  I'm teaching an extra class, and I had to recruit one of my colleagues to teach a section of AP CS Principles.  It's a wonderful problem to have.

What is administration’s support (or lack of support) like at your school?
My director, Mike Koski, has been fantastic about giving me the freedom to develop a vision for CS at our school, and to then present that vision to our students. 

How do you measure success for your program? For your students?
With the AP courses, I certainly want my students to do well as it relates to College Board requirements.  But mostly I measure success by how many students we get to try CS.  They don't need to love it.  They don't need to take other CS courses.  But I do want them to have at least been exposed to CS and felt like they had a safe place to try and fail, and learn and succeed.  We have over 160 students taking at least one of the two AP CS courses this year. 

What is the one thing you like to talk about regarding your program that I haven’t already asked?
My classroom!  Last year I had all my APCSA students split into teams and enter the Verizon App Challenge.  One of the teams won best in state for New Hampshire.  Not only did the winning students get tablets, but the school also received a $5000 grant.  We used the money to redo a classroom.  You'll see in the picture that there is a good deal of whiteboard space (54' to be precise), there is fun furniture, and there are different levels that students can sit/stand at.  Prior to teaching I worked at Google and Amazon, so I've tried to make our classroom feel more like a creative space, and less like a classroom.

WHS CS Lab Small

Tell me about your online presence (if any)
· School name and web site: Windham High School.  http://whs.windhamsd.org/
· Twitter:  https://twitter.com/rajicgupta

Note: The index for this interview series is at http://blog.acthompson.net/2017/10/computer-science-educator-interview.html and is updated as new interviews are posted.

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