Asheville School embeds computer science in academic and extracurricular opportunities

December 13, 2016

This summer, after attending Asheville School’s app camp, 14-year-old Gabriel Wong planned, designed, programmed, and launched his first app. Wong’s game, “Go Switchy,” has been downloaded more than 180 times from users in more than 10 countries.

“Go Switchy” features images of switches that pop up on the screen. The object of the game is to flip the switches before they disappear, whack-a-mole style. It features easy, normal, hard, and “insane” modes that control how long it takes the switches to disappear.

While it may seem like a simple game, the kind of app that Wong created requires a thorough understanding of app development and programming. Wong, a sophomore from the Bahamas, credits his week at app camp with introducing him to Apple’s Swift programming language and the skills needed to create “Go Switchy.”

Wong loves the creativity inherent in programming, and he knows that there are jobs to be had in the burgeoning field.

“I really like programming because there aren’t many limitations to it,” Wong said. “There is a high demand for computer science and computer engineering. It is really needed, and I think people should hop on that.”

December 5-11 is Computer Science Education Week, which aims to celebrate Wong’s sentiment that computer science is a fun, creative field that is highly relevant to the modern job market.

Computer Science Education Week is organized by “as a call to action to raise awareness about the need to elevate computer science education at all levels and to underscore the critical role of computing in all careers.”

Asheville School is building educational programming that aims to integrate computer science throughout a variety of classes and afternoon activities to give students like Gabriel Wong the skills needed to create their own apps, software, and devices.

These opportunities come in conjunction with Asheville School’s 1:1 laptop program. At the beginning of the school year, every Asheville School student was assigned a MacBook Air laptop. The computer initiative ensures every student uses the same platform, thus enabling teachers to create standardized computing and programing lessons.

“Computer Science is uniquely set up to teach critical thinking skills,” explained Asheville School AP Computer Science Teacher Anna Lawrence.  “You have to take large projects and break them down into small pieces. Students must think deeply about what they are doing, how it is being done, and how to communicate. That kind of thinking is useful across disciplines.”

Anna Lawrence teaches AP Computer Science, which has a focus on programming, and AP Computer Science Principles, which is a new course from the College Board that focuses on project-based learning and the effect that technology has in today’s world.

She is excited for the innovative techniques she can use in the classroom. Instead of having students read a chapter, listen to a lecture, and then do exercises, she can use an integrated teaching approach for material like Apple’s Swift programming language.

“I use Swift Playgrounds as interactive textbooks,” says Anna Lawrence. “Half of the screen is reading material and the other half is a visual representation of what they are learning. They do mini-exercises as they go. Then in class we can dig deeper and consider mechanics.”

Her colleague, Science Teacher Laura Lawrence is excited to begin weaving aspects of computer science into her physics and engineering classrooms.

This year, she is encouraging students who show mastery of class material to take their knowledge one step further. Students can program computational models that will help solve complex physics problems.

“Coding allows you to consider variables that you would usually have to ignore,” Laura Lawrence said. “I hope that students will see coding as a tool for empowerment. It unlocks so many doors.”

Next semester, Laura Lawrence will teach a new engineering class in which students will have the chance to learn basic computer circuitry and programming.

In addition to these courses, Director of Technology Charles Long and Director of Communications Bob Williams have teamed up to offer three technology-based afternoon activities: App Development, Robotics, and Tinkering with Technology.

In the 2016 App Development activity, students created a security app that will allow Asheville School teachers and administrators to access the school’s official security procedures on their phones.

In addition to demonstrating that programming can be used to create practical tools, Long wants students to know that programming is often more relevant to students’ lives than meets the eye.

“Computer science develops your ability to make life decisions. You are constantly balancing between logic and creativity. You hit problems and have to take a step back and rethink things,” Long said.

Through these courses and activities, Asheville School seeks to make computer science accessible for all students.

“I was introducing a student to his first lines of code the other day during our Robotics activity, and after about an hour I told him ‘You now know more about computer science than your average high school student,’” Williams said.  “Anyone can get started writing code, and it’s great to see organizations like, Apple, Microsoft, and others supporting Computer Science Education Week.”

“It’s amazing to witness a student discover the power of coding after spending only a few hours learning about how apps are made,” Williams said. “I’m grateful for Asheville School’s commitment to exposing more students to computer science. It’s a skill that will certainly benefit our students later in life.”

Asheville School is a nationally acclaimed co-ed, college preparatory boarding and day school for students in grades 9 through 12. The 289 students enrolled at Asheville School represent 20 states and 16 countries. Recent graduates have been accepted to Amherst, Columbia, Davidson, Duke, Elon, Emory, Furman, Georgetown, Harvard, NC State, Rhodes, Sewanee, UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Virginia, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, William & Mary, WashU, Wofford, and Yale among others.