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Helping students crack computer science code

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Rob MacDonald scrawled an equation on a whiteboard, graphed it, then asked the students in his advanced calculus class to write a formula to calculate slope at any point on the curve.

It was just the third day of school, and the seniors at Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill furiously went to work, with most punching numbers into calculators and scribbling in notebooks. But one student, Lucas Cassels, turned to his laptop and a programming language called Python, which he has used to write a basic software application that can complete the assignment for him. All he had to do was input MacDonald’s equation, pick a point, and the app spit out the slope.

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“Everyone should learn coding so they can take shortcuts in math class,” Cassels said with a grin.

The school agrees. Beaver Country Day has launched a program this year to teach computer coding to every student, beginning with upperclassmen and eventually expanding down to sixth-graders. With leading technology companies pressing Massachusetts to make computer science classes available in every school system, Beaver Country Day is taking an unorthodox approach: Rather than teach it as a distinct course, Beaver is integrating coding into all of its subjects, experimenting with uses not only in math and science classes, but even in English and art.

Coding refers to various languages programmers use to make computers perform the functions most users take for granted. Behind every Web page and mobile application are lines of code — and someone has to write them.

As with any dialect, a programming language has punctuation and spelling conventions. Is it possible to compose a poem in Python? Could lines of code form a work of art? Beaver intends to find out.

And just as people learn their first spoken languages through immersion, Beaver students will pick up coding languages similarly, without structured lessons.

“A lot of what we’ve been talking about is using it when it’s organic, and just having students and teachers keep an eye out for those moments,” said MacDonald, the math department chairman who is leading the coding effort. “So if there’s somebody in the room who’s already got some skills who can jump in and share that with the class, that’s great. If the students need some new tools to do the coding work, we can teach them on the fly.”

Rob MacDonald used coding to teach calculus at Beaver Country Day School.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Rob MacDonald used coding to teach calculus at Beaver Country Day School.

Already, state education officials and technology groups are looking to the kind of integrated strategy being tested at Beaver as a promising, and practical, way to introduce students to computer coding — something few schools do now. Last year, only 713 students in the entire state took an advanced placement exam in computer science, according to Mass Insight Education, a nonprofit group that promotes advanced learning.

Computer science skills should be an important element of contemporary education, said Tom Gwin, principal of Winchester High School, which has offered AP computer science for a decade. Enrollment has more than doubled since the course was launched — 32 students signed up this year — and Winchester High also offers classes in robotics, Web design, computer animation, mobile application development, and, starting this fall, video game design.

“If you look at the help wanted section in the Sunday Globe, it’s all software engineers, programmers — those are the jobs,” Gwin said.

Realistically, not every school can offer a selection of computer science-related courses such as Winchester’s, said Mitchell Chester, commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. That is why he has advocated sprinkling coding lessons into the classes schools already teach.

“Any time you’re asking schools to do something they don’t already do, you’re talking about adding new infrastructure, hiring another teacher, adding an expense,” Chester said. “So any time you can integrate new skills into an existing curriculum, it’s more attainable.”

Seniors Davis Rochester (left) and Lucas Cassels worked on a problem during an advanced calculus class that integrates computer coding at Beaver Country Day School in Brookline.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Seniors Davis Rochester (left) and Lucas Cassels worked on a problem during an advanced calculus class that integrates computer coding at Beaver Country Day School in Brookline.

The Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network, a coalition that includes tech giants Google and Microsoft, set out in the spring to help the state education department provide more computer science to interested students in all school systems. Heather Carey, executive director of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council’s Education Foundation, said she is “super interested in schools who are thinking creatively about how to introduce computing concepts into their classes.”

At Beaver, faculty members went to varying lengths to familiarize themselves with coding languages in preparation for the school year. Some who expect to use coding skills regularly, such as math instructor Tiffany Anderson, took formal training during the summer.

Despite their hard work, however, teachers have come to a startling realization: “In my algebra class, I’m pretty confident that I know more algebra than all the kids in the class,” said math teacher Kevin Bau. “But I’m pretty sure that 10 to 20 percent of my kids are better coders than I am. It’s kind of scary but also exciting. Sometimes the expert is Zach over there. So I’ll say, ‘Zach, can you explain this to the rest of the class?’ And that’s the way teaching should be.”

Cassels put his computer coding knowledge to work using a laptop during his class at Beaver CountyDay School.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Cassels put his computer coding knowledge to work using a laptop during his class at Beaver CountyDay School.

Beaver staff hope the coding initiative will have other positive side effects. The school aims to interest more girls in math and science careers, and to break down stereotypes about the kinds of students who study computer science. It is hard to label individuals as geeks and nerds if everyone is coding.

In truth, though, Beaver’s administration is not sure what its coding initiative will achieve, or how it will evolve during this experimental year.

“But you’ve got to just get it out there, see how it goes, and adjust on the run,” said Beaver head of school Peter Hutton. “That’s the mind-set outside of education. I think education could do better by adopting that mind-set.”

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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