Connecticut high school students showed off their computing chops at a legislative reception honoring the winners of the Congressional App Challenge. The event—in which winners from each of the state’s five congressional districts exhibited their work at the State Capitol and demonstrated for legislative leaders what’s happening with computer science education in their schools—was hosted by the Connecticut Chapter of the Computer Science Teachers Association, whose goal is to increase computer science education in public schools and help level the playing field for students.
Fear of the subject, a lack of interest, and busy schedules are typically the top reasons students shy away from computer science, says Connecticut CSTA member Patrice Gans, who helped organize the event. She adds that computer science educators are helping break down some of those barriers.
“There are not enough computer science courses being offered in our schools, but we’re making progress,” says Gans, noting that equity in education has been an ongoing challenge. “It plays out in different ways, with some schools—often wealthier districts—having the support and resources for computer science education from their administrators and boards of education, while it can go the other way in other districts. And there’s the added challenge of getting more girls and minority students into computer science classes.”
Teachers who coach, kids who code
Designed to engage students’ creativity and encourage participation in computer science and coding, the Congressional App Challenge invites middle and high school students nationwide to compete within their congressional districts by creating original software applications for mobile, tablet, or computer devices. Because the program is intended to introduce students to software development, students do not need a coding background to participate—just a readiness to learn.
Avon High School teacher Jeanine LaBrosse, a 33-year veteran computer science teacher who served as an advisor for the prize recipients from her school—twin sisters and two-time winners Jaya and Dheepa Hari—says, “Seeing my students share the joy I’ve had in computer science and mathematics is one of the greatest rewards of being a teacher. They are now ambassadors for computer science, for coding, and for women in technology.”
Eleventh-graders Jaya and Dheepa, who are active in LaBrosse’s school club Girls Who Code, took the prize in Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District for their app MyMedWallet, which keeps individuals’ medical information organized in a single place.
Other winners include RHAM High School student Justin Han for his flashcard-like vocabulary tool Latinum Studium, and Wilton High School’s Alex Li, Benjamin Grass, Andreas Tsantilas, and Purab Angreji for QuantEX, which helps students access formulas and compute complex mathematical, chemical, and physics equations. In addition, West Haven students were recognized for an app, V.A.S.A., to assist visually impaired individuals with food shopping by reading nutritional labels, as were seniors from Cheney Technical High School who created Test Driver’s ED, which simulates driving through suburban and urban areas and includes driver safety information and quizzes.
Betsy Dillard, a computer science teacher at CREC’s Academy of Science and Innovation and the president of CSTA’s Connecticut chapter, recalls, “When I went to high school, we consumed our education. We mostly memorized information and weren’t asked to interject anything into it. Today’s students create. We give them a problem, or they identify a problem, and then they find solutions.”
As computer science teachers, Dillard adds, “We gently, and sometimes not so gently, knock on the doors of schools and legislators’ offices and ask them to support computer science education. It’s offered in only 27 percent of schools in our state. It needs to be 100 percent.”
Indeed, technology education for pre-K through 12th grade has been identified by the Connecticut State Department of Education (SDE) as a teacher shortage area for 2019-2020, as has science in grades 7-12. CEA supports efforts to provide high-quality computer science education for all students and is working to ensure teachers of color are recruited in greater numbers to these and other teaching shortage areas.
Mohit Agrawal, deputy policy director for Governor Ned Lamont, pointed out that computer science reaches into every sector of the economy and that education in computer science builds critical thinking skills.
Jennifer Michalek, a computer science leader with the SDE, similarly called computer science “a foundational skill for preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s careers and to help them become college-, career-, and civic-ready.”
The districtwide Congressional App competitions take place from July through early November.