Computer Science educators, researchers and experts will converge in Omaha, Nebraska for the annual CSTA conference, held this year from July 7th – 10th. Not only is this conference a great place to learn, it’s a unique opportunity to develop a professional learning community around one of the most important topics in education.


I am privileged to have the opportunity to present with Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy on Computational Thinking, but I am also grateful for the chance to explore many other intriguing topics discussed during the conference. Here are a few I’m most excited about:


Saturday, July 7th

Evidence-Based Reporting: An Equitable Grading Model Fit for the CS4ALL Era

Presenters: Michelle Zietlow

I don’t think many teachers get too excited about the topic of grading. But when viewed through the lens of the high degree of autonomy it affords teachers in an otherwise rigid organizational model, the process of grading can be valued as opposed to dreaded; and perhaps even one that inspires reflection and creativity. In my current role in the EdTech realm, I’m not exposed to the term “grading” anymore, but instead, we do have feedback. And we love feedback; in fact, we make collecting it one of our primary goals. We discuss different ways to collect feedback and spend a lot of time analyzing what we’ve gathered. Grading, like feedback, is something that teachers are responsible for, and there is no reason why it can’t be an energizing and vital part of any classroom.   With all the value it adds to the educational equation, teachers have a duty to ensure grading is done in a fair and equitable way. When you realize how powerful well-delivered feedback can be in maximizing student (and employee) potential, you realize doing it right is of the utmost importance. This presentation should give teachers an opportunity to think about their current grading practices and share great ideas with their peers.


Sunday, July 8th

Unplug It, Block It, & Build It: Computational Thinking in Action

Presenters: Heather Benedict & Jennifer Rosato

This hands-on session aims to examine computational thinking and computer science topics through exploring how these concepts can be taught via “unplugged” activities, an approach that has long been part of the CT teaching equation. I believe that some of the reason behind the popularity of unplugged activities is practical: many teachers in elementary and middle schools are trying to teach computer science without the luxury of consistent access to enough computers. In these scenarios, unplugged activities are not complimentary additions, but are instead crucial to run an effective program at all. There is also, I think, an aspirational aspect to all of this. Teachers feel empowered by not being uncompromisingly tied to a textbook. When I taught, there would be days, even weeks, when my students did not use a particular textbook in my classroom, and I think it helped me develop into a better teacher. I didn’t need the math book to teach math and I didn’t need a history book to teach my students about the causes of WWII. In this same way, the teaching of computer science shouldn’t be inexplicably tied to a computer. And besides, it’s a long school year. Students need different ways to interact with information. The more valuable tricks that a teacher has in his/her toolbox, the better. 


Engage a Wider Network of Stakeholders in Your Computer Science Program

Presenters: Jen Noborikawa

Any program is going to be more successful if it has a shared vision supported by strong buy-in among all stakeholders. Is achieving this buy-in part of a teacher’s responsibilities? I firmly believe that the answer is yes. Stakeholder engagement is something I have learned a great deal about at my current job, and it is one of those topics I wish I knew more about while I was teaching. Things like community partnerships are popular topics in education right now, and I would argue that there are more opportunities to engage the community around computer science in than there is around most other subjects right now. For example, students can build an app and create pitches for local business leaders if these kinds of relationships are cultivated. Really, what teacher would not want to be a part of a thriving, professional learning network that provided ideas, support and inspiration? Stakeholder engagement is about all of these things, and mastering it goes a long way towards developing a successful computer science program.


Monday, July 9th

Beyond “Just Programming:” Using Agile Methods for Authentic Learning

Presenters: Jen Gilbert

My interest in this presentation is quite personal; I helped implement Agile methods at Robomatter and I am fascinated to see how the presenters suggest incorporating this into a school setting. In addition, I think this topic surfaces an important point. Students need to see how computer science is applied in addition to learning about the theory of CS. Students are always told that CS is the foundation of all of the great innovations in our life. But how? Many students have preconceptions of the isolated programmer, working all day and night on their code to create the next Facebook. But in the real-world, companies employ things like Agile or Kanban to produce the projects that we use and enjoy every day. I think exposing students to that is a great idea and I can’t wait to see how the experts plan on making it happen.


Tuesday, July 10th.

Developing Computational Thinking Through a Virtual Robotics Curriculum

Presenters: Jesse Flot and Jason McKenna

Great news! CSTA saved the best presentation for last!

Just kidding. Honestly, I’m honored to be speaking at CSTA and I’m thrilled to be joined by Jesse Flot of Carnegie Mellon University. We will be sharing the results of the peer-reviewed study titled Developing Computational Thinking through a Virtual Robotics Programming Curriculum; a study that succeeds in validating that after completing a level of the Robomatter Curriculum, students show significant gains in generalizable computational thinking. Why we are so excited to share the results of the study, is that transfer is always our goal as educators. It is why it is called CSforAll.

And the All applies to teachers, also. If you do come to the presentation, please make sure to say hello. I would love to get your feedback on the presentation and discuss what is, and isn’t, working in your computer science classrooms. The CSTA conference is a great opportunity for teachers to collaborate, learn and encourage one another.