Chiara Shah, Robotics Advisor, Computer Science FacultyImagine a classroom where tables are grouped in clusters and students are routinely and randomly placed on teams, where one team is brainstorming, sketching or planning; another is building, gluing, cutting or programming; one has a student mentoring a peer and another has a teacher recommending a resource, suggesting an improvement or helping students solve problems.
In this classroom, students don’t need reminders to take out their books or get their pencils ready. They are not glued to chairs for an entire period and they don’t want to leave when the bell rings. These students collaborate, share ideas and discuss. Their voices are never hushed but instead loud and excited.
Sounds like an elementary school classroom? Think again. This is my classroom, where I teach computer science and robotics to students in Ranney’s Upper School. Students in my classes learn by doing. With a hands-on focus, there are no required textbooks, and many quizzes and tests have been replaced by projects and activities that have more meaning, more intrinsic motivation and more opportunity for student creativity.
Enrollment in computer science and robotics courses has skyrocketed at Ranney from less than 20 students a few years ago to almost 80 in 2015-16. More than 25% of the Upper School student body is learning to code or build robots. (In our Lower School, students can take robotics as an elective starting in fourth grade and younger students learn basic coding and programming through their technology classes). This growth has been fueled by the amazingly creative students who started our Robotics Club in 2010. Their passion for exploration, tinkering and making – and their incredible successes in competitions – inspired our new Innovation Labs
and serves as a success story for the benefits of design thinking instruction. Only at a school like Ranney could this transformation in pedagogy, staffing and facilities be so universally embraced and encouraged.
What excites me most as a teacher is being able to answer “yes” when students ask “Can we 3D print and build a drone from scratch?” or “Can I build a claw machine?” or “Can I write a program that reads sentences and analyzes their sentence structure?” Watching my students progress from initial inspiration to creation, from testing to delivering their final product is amazing—and I am awed by their energy and passion.
Even more exciting is watching students struggle, adapt and ultimately learn to succeed after a series of failures. No success is celebrated more than one earned through perseverance. And no knowledge is remembered as long or as well as that gained through experience and trial and error. I hope my students embrace failure as a stepping stone to success. I want them to celebrate each other’s achievements and support each other through challenges. I want them to believe that their experience in my classroom is meaningful and worthwhile, that all this “play” is leading them toward a larger goal of finding their passion in life, of finding, not their job, but their vocation.
Interdisciplinary study is part and parcel with computer science. Coding is ultimately a tool that allows students to explore their interests in other subjects. My students, for example, have used their coding skills to build databases of butterfly species (science), to read and analyze sentences (linguistics), to calculate the expected value of Monopoly properties (economics), to create a Google plug-in that helps students write college application essays (English), and to create randomly-generated digital art (visual arts). In my perfect world, every student will choose Computer Science as part of a double major in college: Comp Sci and Business, Comp Sci and Medicine, Comp Sci and Math, Comp and Art. I would argue that any and all majors of study can be meaningfully paired with this discipline.
I chose Ranney as a place to teach because the leadership and faculty embraced my interdisciplinary background (I come from industry and can teach English, Math and Computer Science). I also chose Ranney as a school for my own two children (Kayla – Class of 2022, and Kiran – Class of 2018) because I wanted them to grow up in a community where they could learn from professionals as committed to teaching as I am.
In our increasingly technological world, where innovations come fast and furious, students need a background in design thinking and interdisciplinary study. By preparing students to solve problems in innovative ways, Ranney is at the forefront of the educational maker movement. Every day, I see how my own children, and all of the students at Ranney, are benefitting from this paradigm shift, and I am proud to be part of the faculty at an institution that is leading this change.