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Erin Counihan

Coordinator of Secondary Education, Washington College


How did you get started on this journey into computer science?

Three years ago, in 2018, Shaun Ramsey, a CS faculty member and now the head of the Math and CS department, came to me and said, “Why don’t we have a pathway to certification for computer science teachers?” And I said, "I have no idea!".  That was when I realized that I don't know a darn thing about computer science.

Since we're a small school we might only have one student every couple of years who wants to pursue  Computer Science Education. But we started the conversation between our departments and that led to creating the first undergraduate program for CS Education in Maryland. Currently, students an major in CS and minor in Secondary Education Studies to complete the certification program.

I knew I needed to expand my understanding of computer science so that I could build this program because, although I would not be teaching the computer science courses, I'd be teaching the pedagogy and methods of how to teach it well. Shaun and I put together a group of education and computer science students, with some local teachers and we used an MCCE mini-grant to take the time to study together. That was a great introduction to what makes up computer science. So, I didn't necessarily learn computer science, but I learned what it was, and I had a better concept of what it would look like in the classroom. I would listen to students who are passionate about computer science saying “Why don’t people understand this?” and the education people suggesting ways to communicate the ideas to make them more accessible.


What are you doing now?

We continue to collaborate and build support for our local school districts and opportunities for our students. We have a wonderful instructional technologist on campus, Raven Bishop, a former art teacher who understands good pedagogical structure. She encouraged me to discover innovative ways to integrate computational thinking into my literacy classes. We emphasize that this is a different kind of new literacy that everyone needs.

Michelle Johnson teaches our math and science methods course for elementary so she'll be integrating CT there and she could work some of the ideas into other courses as well. I'll be doing the same with my literacy and methods courses this fall. So, so by the end of this coming school year, all of our teaching interns will have had at least a unit on computational thinking. And we're hoping that students can apply what they’ve learned when they are doing their internships in the classrooms.

Computer science didn't really exist as a subject when I was in school. We all took tech and typing classes and when I attended a liberal arts college, even though they had an engineering program and a computer science program it was a very small group of people in their own building and other majors weren't encouraged to take those classes. After that, as a K-12 teacher, I never taught in a school that offered computer science. I taught in New York, Washington, Texas, and Maryland. I never had the opportunity to talk with a teacher who was teaching CS. So, I don't have any context. But I hope, that through this process, I can give my students more of a start than I had. That's one of the benefits of the small liberal arts college. Students who are sitting in my education courses are having conversations between English, art, music, science and each area adds its own perspective. I'm hoping that as we bring more CS students into those classes we get a little bit more exposure to what various assignments look like in CS.

One thing that Shaun and I are continuing to do is to connect our CS and Education students. We want to enable a cross conversation so that the CS students have more of an ability to talk to lay people about what it is that they're doing, and the Education students get a deeper understanding of the issues in developing modern technology. There's so much terminology and jargon that just doesn't cross over because most of us weren't exposed to it in high school. English majors can talk about something, and everybody else has done some version of that because we all had to take English in high school, and the same with all the content areas, everybody's been exposed to it, but for computer science, they haven't, and that’s a barrier.

What are some of the strengths of Washington College?

One of the benefits of being in a small liberal arts college is kind of the interdisciplinary collaboration that it brings to many different discussions. We have just over 100 full-time faculty members, so the collaboration across the college is great and it’s common to have that crossover because we do all work closely.

Classes are small, and there are many opportunities for students to work closely with faculty.

Washington College has the only fully approved undergraduate program to computer science education certification in Maryland. We also offer a minor in Secondary Education studies for andy CS student who is interested so we're hoping we can try to bring some CS people into education as well. So even if students don't necessarily take the time to pursue the certification we can at least get more crossover between the CS and education students. 

Dianne O'Grady-Cunniff, dogrady at usmd dot edu
Director, Maryland Center for Computing Education

Dr. Megean Garvin, mgarvin at usmd dot edu
Director of Research, Maryland Center for Computing Education

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Maryland Center for Computing Education
3300 Metzerott Rd. Adelphi, MD 20783
MCCE received initial support from the National Science Foundation, (MSP)2 Grant No. 0831970.