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CA HeadshotCarol-Ann Smith


Computer Science Teacher

Thomas Stone HS


How did you get into CS?

I started in computer science back in… when did BASIC come out? It was the early seventies, I believe. I did BASIC programming as a kid; as soon as computers came out, I was all over it. Then my friends got the “trash eighties," the TRS-80s, and we would make games on the big 8½” floppy disks- which you youngsters have no clue about unless you’ve seen them in a museum. But those were real and we programmed on them! We were really excited when we got a disc that would hold like… 4 MB of data. You would do all this coding and it was just amazing. So I've always been interested in computer science. I got into engineering (which is another love of mine) in college and worked in that for a while. I ended up teaching after I lost a job in the industry; I was a network engineer working under the Treasury umbrella of agencies for 18 years, then after 9/11 suddenly everybody needed a DOD clearance, which I didn't have because I'd been working for so long under the Treasury's umbrella. My sister said, ‘Hey, why don't you check out substitute teaching while you're drawing unemployment and working on going back and getting another degree?’ and that’s how I got into teaching. I found out I could teach engineering, but then they recruited me to the dark side of computer science, because my actual bachelors is in computer science- Information Systems Management, which is kind of where my forte was- so I ended up taking over the computer science program when I got into the high school at Stone. I started teaching all the classes and had to teach myself object-oriented programming, which wasn’t a thing back when I was learning programming, and then Javascript. I had coded in COBOL, Pascal, Fortran, and Ada- which is an ancient language only the military knows about- but I had not programmed in any of the newer languages up until I started teaching them. That’s my story in a nutshell.

What are some successes and challenges that you've experienced along the way in your education and career?

Well, definitely a challenge was being a female in the engineering industry. You weren't seen as capable until you did twice the amount of work as everybody else, and then it was ‘Oh, yeah, you're kind of good.’ That kind of immaturity from adults in the “real world” was definitely a deciding factor in choosing to stay in education; when I found out I could teach for a career and only have to deal with adolescent attitudes in actual adolescents, that was a no-brainer. The loss of my industry job and being so down on my luck ended up being a huge blessing in disguise because I found something that I'm passionate about and really enjoy; teaching is a lot of fun. 

Probably one of the brightest points in my career was this one kid who kept coming back to my classes. Not a particularly gifted kid; he didn't shine and wasn't somebody I'd expected to keep returning for more computer science, but he did. I had him as a freshman, then not as a sophomore, but then again as a junior and a senior, and in his senior year he said, ‘You know, you really inspired me to get into computer science in college,’ and I was like, Really?? And he said, ‘Yeah, because you never stopped telling me that I could do it, and even though I didn't believe you I kept trying because you kept telling me I could.’ I'm a huge believer that everybody can succeed if they try- especially in my classes. I scaffold it so that they can be successful as long as they're willing to put in the work, ask questions, be actively engaged, and collaborate. Computer science is all about collaboration in the work world, so I make sure their classwork includes being involved in teams and helping each other out. Anyway, I was actually speechless when he said this; it was really cool. I’m constantly egging the kids on, saying ‘Hey, I know you can do this; I expect better from you; I know you're capable of more,’ but I never would have believed they were actually listening. You get what appears to be apathy; it seems like they’re ignoring you, yet they keep returning and then one day they turn around and say, ‘Hey, you inspired me to go into computer science.’ Oh, okay! Sure! What? Yeah, I'll take it! So I'm hoping he's successful in his studies; I know he has the work ethic. He kept trying and pushed through, and that was my big thing- you have to push through and build on your understanding. I tell my students all the time: I am not a master in any of the languages I teach, but I am a master in logic. If you understand logic and design, you can translate that into any coding language you're working with. Learn logic, push through, and the coding will follow.

What do you find compelling about computer science?

I think the breadth of it.  A lot of people like to pigeonhole what computer science is, but that's like saying that music is a certain thing. What is music? Music is a huge array of things. There's people that play music, people that compose music, people that sing music, people that perform music on instruments, and all of that is part of music. Computer science is the same way; you've got hardware designers, software designers, interface designers. You've got the back-end coders, the front-end encoders, the mix of robotics… there’s such a huge variety out there and it permeates everything we interact with. You can't pigeonhole it. Also, I love to learn; I'm constantly learning and discovering new things. I've probably forgotten more in my lifetime than I'm ever going to learn, but it's a perpetually changing thing and I like that about it because you can constantly reinvent things. I tell students all the time, ‘There's a reason not to be an expert at anything except learning, because everything's always changing. You have to be able to understand how to apply what you know to the next thing; I'm trying to teach you guys how to think critically so YOU can design the next new thing, because I'm already out of date. I've been out of the “real world” for a long time now and wouldn't be able to go back and be any good; I'd have to take an entry-level job because things have changed so much. But if I can teach you how to think critically, you can be successful no matter which direction you take. You just need to figure out what your passion is so you can decide where you want to go, because it's such a broad field.’ I find that really invigorating, I get very passionate about that.

What is going well for you now?  What are you excited about or looking forward to? What recent or ongoing work or accomplishments are you proud of?

I just found out I got the SMECO Outstanding Teacher Award, which they do down here in Charles, St. Mary's, and Calvert counties. I'm one of the 22 honorees; there are 5 in the STEM category, and I won for High School Stem in Charles County. I still have no idea how- maybe it's because I don't really see myself as that outstanding of a teacher. I just plug along and do what I can. I'm constantly juggling, learning, and having to reinvent. One of the things I'm excited about this year is that we have another teacher at Stone. Our program has grown now to need 2 full-time computer science teachers, which is really kind of cool. The new teacher’s area of expertise is web design and web development, which is not my wheelhouse at all, so we complement each other really well. He comes from industry so I've been mentoring him and trying to help him along in learning the teaching side of it, which has been cool. 

And what am I looking forward to? As long as I'm having fun, I'm gonna keep teaching; that's the big thing. Some days are good, some days are bad. Today wasn't a particularly good day, so I'm just looking forward to the fact that my weekend started as soon as I left school. Monday is gonna come and we're gonna try again. 

Do you have any advice, suggestions, or resources that you would like to share?

Change is your friend. Everything changes; you can't just keep on doing the same thing the same way all the time, it’s never going to work. You constantly have to learn and reevaluate what you're doing. That’s the one big thing: if you can embrace change, you can succeed in teaching. I'm not sure I would encourage anybody to go into teaching right now, but if that's where your passion lies and you really believe in it, then you’ll need to embrace change. And just like any other kind of project management, you need to know what your end goal is so you can scaffold everything to reach it. There’s no way to succeed if your end goal is only to survive the year; you have to have a clear goal in mind about what you want to do, even if all it is is ‘For this project, I want the kids to be able to…’ From there you build the next block, and the next; you gotta constantly push. 

The other big thing is: don't do it alone. Computer science is a team effort in the work world; it needs to be a team effort in education. A lot of us are onesies at our schools, so it can be very isolating at times; getting involved in organizations helps. I'm not as active in CSTA as I probably should be, but I'm a huge fan of I started out piloting their ECS program, CS Discoveries, and stuck with it. I really love it and am a huge proponent of the company and their philosophy. They build a community, and when you do the training you make connections and those connections are gonna save you in the end- even the Facebook groups. I'm on the phone all the time with 4 or 5 different Facebook groups- for Code Org, CSA, CSP, ECS, cybersecurity- constantly asking questions, getting advice. You can't do it alone; really, you can't.

Anything else on your mind?

Yeah, if whoever sees this happens to know anybody in Nebraska, Nebraska needs to get off their duffs about getting Internet and computer science out there. That's where my uncle is, and I'm the caretaker for him. When you look, they're the one big white blip on the entire US Map for coverage of cell phones- that's the STATE of Nebraska, not just a part of it. They have such limited Internet, it kills me when I go out there; my wi-fi hotspot runs out really fast. And they don't teach computer science! In Maryland, there’s lots of opportunities; it's like every school has computer science around here. But out there they don't even teach computer science in the local community colleges. You might be able to get a Microsoft Excel class or a Microsoft Word class, but to get any kind of computer science at all you'd have to go to University of Nebraska at Lincoln or Omaha. I didn't think situations like that still existed! This is what kills me: the farmers out there complain all the time because all of their equipment is automated and programmed now- so it has to be taken to John Deere for maintenance. If you could learn how to program, you could learn how to maintain your own equipment. But you can't, because there aren’t opportunities to learn. Anyway, that's the fun part of my life, having to be between here where I've got huge high speed Internet at the apartment, Zooming on WiFi with no problems, and there, where it's just like, do I have a signal? Do I have a signal?

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.