Leigh Ann DeLyser is the computer science curriculum consultant for the Academy for Software Engineering, a new public high school near Union Square that aims to produce the next generation of software engineers, web developers and internet entrepreneurs. She's the co-author of the report Running on Empty: The Failure to Teach K-12 Computer Science in the Digital Age.
In a conversation with New Tech City host Manoush Zomorodi, she discusses why computer science courses are important for high schoolers, how they will become a part of English classes and what lies ahead for the inaugural class of 135 students entering AFSE as ninth graders this year.
Tell us about the Academy for Software Engineering.
This school was founded because there's so many technology jobs in the city and there's not nearly enough people to fill them. We're hoping to turn out students that not only pursue a four-year college education whether it be in computer science or even a discipline with a minor in CS that gives them extra knowledge and marketability as a professional, but maybe some kids graduate and decide not to go to college. Then they take a short career course or transitionary role and then step right into the industry without a college degree.
Tech is booming in New York City. Is this something you feel the Department of Education is well-placed to capitalize on?
In a nation as big as ours, there are only 2,000 computer science teachers across the entire country. We have less than 20,000 students taking the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam, and to give you a comparison, there's over 150,000 students taking the AP Calculus exam every year. This problem is not just one of ongoing numbers, but we've actually seen a decline in the past five years in the number of students taking the tests, in the number of courses offered, the number of teachers in schools.
To me the greatest history teachers were the ones that were good at telling stories. But how do you do that with conceptual ideas?
Our first course here we're calling a "toolbox." Regardless of the background students have, we want them to have a common set of tools that their teachers can rely on, so the English teacher can give an assignment that has computer science in the English classroom without having to teach it. One of the first tools they're learning is the program called Alice. It was developed at Carnegie Mellon by Randy Pausch, who gave the famous last lecture. Alice is a 3-D modeling and simulation environment where you have characters. Writing a program is exactly that, it's telling a story. There's been a lot of research done that shows that students who learn through Alice actually engage and are more likely to remain in a computer science program than their cohort who start with something more text-based like Python.
Have we ever seen a precedent for this before? How much are we looking at something that is truly brand new?
As a school focused on computer science, this is brand new. There are a number of private schools in the United States where you can get a computer science sequence, and there's even a few public schools like Stuyvesant, which are well-placed, which have students that come in having been screened or having applied beforehand, but it's a very selective and special case. What we're hoping to do here at the Academy is that we're an unscreened school: Any student in New York City can apply to be a student here in this school as long as they pass eighth grade, and it's a lottery for entry. It's not based on their grades. It's not based on their academic performance. Computer Science has a range of jobs for all. Everything from website designer all the way up to theoretician working in a university, and we're really focused in this school with providing a diverse experience for all of our students and giving them all the chances to be successful regardless of the prior knowledge and skills set they come in with.
Interview edited and condensed by Daniel P. Tucker